Young people are living in the social media trial phase of big tech

Young people are living in the social media trial phase of big tech

social media

As a 20 year old, much of my online life has been dominated by social media.

While those in the generations above me anonymously roamed random chat sites or found connections in niche online forums – much of my online life has been curated by the likes of Facebook and Instagram. They’ve been able to do this through unchecked data collection.

That doesn’t just mean my name, age, gender, and location, but who I connect with on their platforms, the content I engage with, what other websites I visit, what I buy online, even what might be waiting in my shopping cart. 

From this data, Meta, which incorporates Facebook and Instagram, knows if I’m stressed at uni, worried about my appearance, or interested in alternative health.They use this data to build a profile of who I am, what content will keep me engaged, and most importantly what advertising will appeal to me. 

This might seem useful, or largely benign, advertising targeted at me that includes: noise cancelling headphones to boost productivity, body positivity content, or healthy green juices.But Meta’s powerful recommendation algorithm, which tracks our data and curates our feed, is also geared towards constant engagement, regardless of its value. 

So while I might get motivational messages, I might also get content that promotes ‘the grind’ and unsustainable work habits. Rather than cheerful body positivity content I might get increasingly intense diet promotion and other ‘healthy’ food fads. And as we’ve all seen in the media, certain sections of the alternative health movement have also seen much more vaccine hesitancy content come their way. 

The majority of the time the use of personal data is shaping our online experience in covert ways we can’t immediately recognise. Young people should be bothered about how much of their personal data is being collected and how their privacy is being violated. 

By the time a child turns 13, advertisers will have likely collected more than 72 million data points on them.For Generation Z and Alpha, while our data has been collected since birth we have no idea how it will be used in the future. The data collected in 2021 might impact us next year, or it might be repurposed and used in 2031.

Meta has said it no longer allows advertisers to target users under 18 based on their interests.But research from Reset Australia has shown its powerful data collecting tools still follow young people around the internet, scraping information and feeding it into its machine learning ad delivery system.

If Meta doesn’t intend to use it to target advertising then why collect it at all? 

In truth, we just don’t know what Meta does with it now. Or what it may do in the future. And I currently have no right to take my data back. The terms and conditions of social media platforms are often deliberately confusing and opaque. 

Which raises the critical question, when I was a minor, did I truly consent to being surveilled? 

The reality is young people are living in the trial phase of Big Tech where big questions like this are yet to be properly confronted. The solution cannot be to ban children from social media or limit their use of technologies. Rather, we need governments to introduce legislation and regulation. 

Young people especially need strong regulation to compel social media and tech companies to act responsibly and ethically with children’s data. The draft Enhancing Online Privacy Act is a great start, but we must ensure it is robust, and not another concessionary, industry-led toothless attempt at regulation. 

Australia has the opportunity to be a global leader in children’s data protection and regulating the collection of data from social media and tech companies. 

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