The recent testimony of Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, to committees of the United States Congress, in respect of the unauthorised use of customer data brought to the fore several related issues around the use of social media.
The immediate issue addressed by the US Congress was the use of the data to design ads and initiate events which arguably influenced the outcome of the US presidential elections which brought Donald Trump to the White House.
Zuckerberg’s testimony followed earlier revelations by former Facebook insiders who claimed that the use of social media was actually addictive and also followed related claims from various countries, including China, that young people had become hooked on playing video games.
These issues are immediately relevant to us here in Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Caribbean. We now know that unauthorised data acquisition took place here in Trinidad by companies related to those which interfered in the United States.
Although section 4(c) of the Constitution recognises a right to privacy and recent court decisions have awarded damages in instances of defamation and ‘revenge porn’, there is a concern that our laws relating to the acquisition and use of personal information may not provide sufficient protection to individuals whose personal information is obtained and used for commercial or political purposes without their consent.
There are, as far as we know, no research studies on whether our young people or even adults are addicted to social media or video games. The information we have is anecdotal and personal observations.
We do know that smartphones are ubiquitous in our secondary schools and from time to time, we see evidence that these are being used for improper purposes. We can surmise that our teenagers are likely to be no different from those in other countries and while we do need to do the research and collect relevant data, as a society we should take note of the responses in other societies where pathologies around the use of social media are known to have developed.
So what can we do? Government needs to promulgate regulations which, for example, prescribe the minimum age at which children can access social media platforms and automatically enforce the highest level of privacy protection for children, including switching off geo-location services.
While it is certainly the responsibility of the State to pass and implement effective laws which protect our privacy in the online world, each of us who use social media has an individual responsibility to take steps to protect our personal data and information.
We need to acquaint ourselves with the techniques used by scammers to get us to part with our information and to resist those efforts. Great care should be exercised with ‘sharing’ certain quizzes, games and even ‘prayer chains’ which invite us to pass on certain prayers or ‘blessings’ to our friends so that we will be ‘blessed’. A good general rule is not to pass along anything whose source and bona fides you cannot personally ascertain.
In respect of mitigating the risk of overuse or addiction by teenagers, there is a great deal that parents can do. First, parents need to exercise discipline over the use of devices from an early age, limiting use per day, and using the parental control features which some devices have which control what applications can be accessed and when. If all else fails, the WiFi can be switched off.
Second, parents need to familiarise themselves with the sites and apps their children are accessing and determine whether these are wholesome or not. Third, and most importantly, parents need to educate their children about the dangers which lurk in the online world and about the techniques which are used to lure young people to participate in what might be unwholesome activities.
Social media is here to stay and arguably can be of considerable benefit to society by facilitating communication and providing information quickly. But it has a dark side of which we need to be aware and to guard against.