Here’s something the world needs like a hole in the head: an Instagram platform for children under age 13. Considering that the world already has a hole in the head called Instagram, I suppose you’d have to call this a matching hole (like those Lilly Pulitzer mother-daughter dresses).
Luckily, after a wave of outrage from anyone with a stake in childhood, Facebook has temporarily put the project on hold, supposedly to listen to “parents, experts, policymakers and regulators.”
The sell from Mark Zuckerberg is that Instagram Kids would be (1) ad-free! (2) loaded with “age-appropriate content and features”! (3) equipped with parental controls! Given that Instagram is already used by pedophiles to meet children online, I wondered who would be supportive of this product.
No legitimate argument could be made for extending the reach of an image-obsessed platform that already has kids over 13 glued to their smartphones and suffering from anxiety, loneliness, and sadness. You would be formatting pliable minds to a social platform and their minds would stay that way for life. You would be implanting the value system of a platform whose sole purpose is to collect and sell personal information.
The reason this proposition is so horrid is not that Facebook thought it up, but that a lot of parents would like it. For the shamefully shallow, there is the chance that their IK-using child will become an influencer creating a revenue stream. Parents who should know better would argue that building an online reputation as an eight-year-old will give kids a creative and entrepreneurial edge, increasing their odds of becoming a unicorn.
When I heard about this latest abomination from Facebook, I thought of Carl Sagan. A passage from his last book, The Demon-Haunted World, has been making the rounds because it is so prescient about the threat of science deniers and conspiracy theories. But that’s not why I thought of him. It was the things he said about books throughout his career. He marveled to Johnny Carson that the book was perhaps the greatest piece of technology ever invented, and he did so as well in his Cosmos series:
What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree, with flexible parts, on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time.
I wasn’t a big Carl Sagan fan during the time of Carl Sagan. Probably because space exploration was the domain of boys obsessed with either science fiction or fighter jets and ICBMs. But in later life, I grew to understand Sagan’s role. It wasn’t really to explain the cosmos to us but to show us how to responsibly manage such vast and sudden scientific knowledge and power in the face of a nuclear arms race. He was a white man from an era that now seems ancient, so he’s probably not a popular role model for today’s parents. But his ability to see the moment within the breadth of human civilization is what made him talk about the merits of a book when the world wanted to talk about landing on Mars.
This is not to say that if children were not on Instagram Kids they’d be reading a book. But most of us can agree that childhood is the one time Americans read books. Whenever book sales plunge deeper into the abyss (which would be every day if not for influencers and their ghostwriters), it’s the continuity of children’s books that keeps people in the industry.
Reviewing Maryanne Wolf’s Reader, Come Home from last year, Mark Bauerlein praised the book for showing how reading cultivates “cognitive patience,” which is
necessary to the critical intellect as it struggles against “novelty bias”—the human preference for new phenomena because they are new. Reading activates background knowledge, too: the process of comprehension combines what we are reading with the knowledge we already have that is somehow related to the matter at hand, thus keeping that knowledge alive in us.
Our grownup world has been drowning in novelty bias for hundreds of years. And of course at various points, books themselves were novelties when access became democratized through public libraries and mass-market paperbacks. But the act of reading makes people empathetic and imaginative, whereas using Instagram makes people competitive with a limited focus on metrics. As childhood in the digital age gets ever shorter (and adolescence stretched to infinity), we need to protect this one hope for the future from the Zuckerberg juggernaut. As Sagan put it, “Life is rare. That’s the lesson from exploring space.” §