The digital monkey bars

As a grade-schooler, we used to make Valentine's Day cards and send them to our classmates. That was my first foray into social media (SM). Of course, that activity would be prohibited today by the 'PC police' who would insist that it is gender-discriminatory (boys sending cards to girls and the reverse). After all, what about those questioning their gender? Should they get cards from both groups? Things have gotten too complicated and incendiary and the practice has been abolished in most schools, deemed a danger to children's healthy growth and self-esteem.

Apart from St. Valentine's Day, the playground was the locus of our social media. During recess, we boys concentrated our social energy on playing dodge ball, climbing the monkey bars and engaging in tests of strength; for the girls it was jumping rope, hopscotch and cliquish whispering. There wasn't much interaction between the two groups. During the school day, when the teachers weren't looking, some of us would write humorous notes or make stupid drawings and send them careening across the room by rubber band to our friends.

Occasionally, these missive missiles were intercepted by girls and our secret words would be revealed to all at some future embarrassing point - usually in the schoolyard. That was the extent of our social media exploits. Today, the SM playing field has become digitized with the introduction of smart phones. Seems like every third-grader on up has a device powerful enough to send the nuclear launch codes to our ICBM silos. Innocence has been replaced with 24/7 connectivity as text messages are transmitted back and forth at breakneck speed. Parents are also part of the problem as many text their children during class!

Apart from texting, there's the social media platforms that seduce our children to join them. Like a stranger in a car offering candy, these free 'services' lure our youngsters into an inescapable online web where information on their likes and dislikes is stored and used to separate them into demographic groups which can be used by the SM companies to sell advertising. Photos are uploaded and archived and spread around the world on platforms like 'Facebook' that boasts two billion users.

With new services come new opportunities and new challenges. One of those is the speed and efficiency that agitators can be mobilized and manipulated. Rallies and sit-ins can be arranged, easily, and through rapid communication via Twitter, protestors are able to avoid police barricades and get the logistical upper hand. Teens with grudges can intimidate and bully others while maintaining their anonymity and, in many cases, not be held responsible for their actions. Recently, the head of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, faced off against Congressional and Senate Committees to explain how the data on 87 million users of his service got into the hands of a political analytics company.

During his questioning, Mr. Zuckerberg attempted to exonerate himself and his firm by playing the contrition card, but it was clear to all that the company had been careless in securing its members' data, but Facebook isn't the only one watching your children's accounts. All 'free' services do. Why? Because user information is their golden goose. Without that data, they would have to radically change their business model and start charging for their services. This would significantly reduce their membership numbers and their attractiveness to advertisers.

Social media may have become the new schoolyard playground, but it is fraught with dangers that we couldn't have contemplated 50 or 60 years ago. Injuries sustained from falling off the monkey bars are nothing compared to the harm that irresponsible use of SM can create. Cuts and bruises heal quickly; data lasts forever.

Stephan Helgesen is a retired U.S. diplomat and now political analyst and author. He has written nine books and over 800 articles on politics, economics and social trends. He can be reached at: stephan@stephanhelgesen.com

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