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Ringing in change


Ringing in change

Jane Stephens is calling for Australia to make a connection with other countries and dial up more control over when kids are exposed to social media.

At 18, you get to vote and drink alcohol. At 17, you get to drive a car on your own. And if a growing movement gets its way, at age 14, you might get to have a phone.

That is not a typo. Fourteen. Year 8 – many years later than most kids today, with many digitally booting up well before the end of Primary school.

Noises are getting louder that those parents who have buckled under the pressure and hooked their kids up have possibly consigned them to other things too: addiction, poor self-esteem, physical ill-health and lousy sleep habits.

Former Facebook (Meta) senior manager Frances Haugen, who turned whistleblower and leaked thousands of documents exposing the inner workings of her employer, says mental and physical illness are collateral damage for platforms whose weapons are algorithms and notifications and whose eyes are fixed solely on the almighty dollar. They knew what they were doing caused harm and did it anyway, she says.

While in Australia for a security conference, Haugen warned that we are lagging behind other countries in combating social media harms. In the US, a growing number of schools make ‘wait for 8’ pledges that means kids cannot have phones until Year 8. Last week, the Florida Governor signed in laws banning children under 14 from having social media accounts, even if their parents consented.

The nation’s state premiers are all for the federal government wresting back control, uniting to sing from the same song sheet last week. Queensland Premier Steven Miles says social media companies have no regard and no responsibility for the material posted or the consequences of it.

And when that means criminals have a place to boast about their exploits and children are being sickened by the high-volume, low-nutrient drivel that flows on their feed, something must be done, he says. But what?

Put a speedbump in the information superhighway? Issue fines to social media platforms for allowing treachery and naughtiness? Retrofit laws to thwart the algorithms? It has all been tried before and found wanting. Too bad the horse bolted a generation ago.

But we must explore ways to claw back some control, for the sake of the children.

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