What Every Parent Should Know About Algorithms

In 2016, Instagram changed the way its users viewed content. Instead of seeing posts in chronological order, Instagram would now show you a feed “that categorizes posts by what interests you most” (as Instagram manager Adam Mosseri put it).

What Every Parent Should Know About Algorithms

They knew what mattered most to you, because the algorithm could solve it. Thanks to your likes, saves, dwell time, as well as the accounts and hashtags you follow, Instagram was able to find more and more content to satisfy your interests. Your feed would be neatly and algorithmically curated, and that content would be presented to you before anything else.

The app wanted us all to scroll and grab our attention and it did that by featuring our favorite content. Falling down rabbit holes is a feature, not a bug.

What if, however, this rabbit hole and what you “cared most about” weren’t ideal? Worse still, what if you were shown content that was irrelevant on social media platforms because the security features weren’t fit for purpose? What if age recommendations made no sense, based on little more than guesswork and a law that dates back to 1998 – and was never intended for social media accounts?

Molly Russell took her own life in November 2017 after viewing “life-sucking content”. She died at the age of just 14. The content she was engaging with was so disturbing that the adults involved in her investigation had difficulty seeing it. Molly was depressed and in the months before her death she had viewed thousands of images of suicide and self-harm. One trick Pinterest uses to make sure you keep coming back to the app is to send email updates on your favorite topic. Molly received an email titled “10 Depression Pins You Might Like” just before her death.

Molly’s family lawyer Merry Varney cried as she recounted the content she saw saying it invaded her thoughts. Independent psychiatrist Dr Venugopal said he had trouble sleeping for weeks. The head of health and wellbeing at Meta (parent company of Instagram and Facebook), Elizabeth Lagone, said she believed the content Molly viewed before her death was safe.

The coroner ruled otherwise and concluded “Molly Rose Russell died of an act of self-harm while suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content”. He went on to say that the content she viewed “contributed to her death in more than minimal ways.”

Where does that leave parents? Many organizations advise parents on how to protect their children and help them use social media safely. They send webinars to parents, via schools, telling us how to help kids “stay safe”. Their websites are full of tips and ideas on how to manage screen time and talk to our kids about online harm.

All very commendable but I think their advice is wrong and I ignore them. Why? Because all of their advice is based on the idea that 13 is the legal age to have a social media account. It is a mistake. It is based on the 1998 US law The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) which was not created with social media in mind. It was intended to prevent online platforms from collecting the personal data of children under 13 for the purposes of targeting and tracking ads. It needs to be reviewed urgently.

I have no doubt that change is coming. The Commissioner for Children said recently: “This generation has not known a world without social media, smartphones and 24 hour communication. I am not happy with what is being done to keep children safe online. »

However, until governments get the online safety bill under control, parents need to stop trusting Mark Zuckerberg, TikTok and Twitter. Far better, I believe, is to look at the gambling tips. Children cannot consent to being manipulated by the ups and downs of gambling. Social media apps give users a similar dopamine hit. That, plus infinite scrolling, keeps us hooked on content.

We gave our children an addictive substance, deliberately designed to be so, and believe that with the right guidance, they should be able to control themselves. Molly was old enough to have an account and was using the platform as the algorithm intended.

I hope the coroner’s discovery and inquest will be a highlight. Our children should not be guinea pigs. As Oliver Sanders KC told Meta’s Elizabeth Lagone about allowing this content in “bedrooms of depressed kids… You don’t have the right to.” You are not their parent. You are just a business in America.

Read more parenting truths from Emilie Silverwood-Cope each month in the Cambridge Independent.


Sharon D. Cole