Putting the Genie of Social Media Back in the Bottle – Jill Ebstein

The unintended consequences of the social media ghost have long been recognized.  Decreased attention span, anxiety, depression, reduced social skills and physical risks.

The unintended consequences of the social media ghost have long been recognized. Decreased attention span, anxiety, depression, reduced social skills and physical risks.

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When it comes to kids and their phones, I wonder, “Can we put the genie back in the bottle?”

Of course the answer is no.

But here I was, at a bar mitzvah, and I saw a twelve-year-old boy riding my three-year-old granddaughter’s tricycle down the hall. This was clearly a bad idea on many levels. The tricycle may break. He should attend the service. And if he wanted to pass the time, why would he ride a toddler tricycle? I asked him this question and he replied, ‘They took my phone. I am bored.”

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When I looked through a window, I saw a football on the ground. I suggested he throw some leather and pointed to the football. He shot back, “I don’t like throwing footballs. I just want my phone.”

At least he agreed to stop riding the tricycle.

This short episode made me wonder if children have lost their ability to play without technology. And what role did the cell phone and the larger social media landscape play in shaping our children’s interactions with their physical world?

As I researched how Pandora’s box opened, I learned this: In the late 1970s, computer hobbyists became captivated by a brave new promise of technology. Using homemade computers and dial-up modems, they began to form communities and exchange information. Energy and big dreams arose.

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CompuServe observed the excitement and responded in 1979 with timesharing services. By paying by the minute, customers could access weather, news and other information online. Even better, they could ‘chat’ online in real time.

The advent of chatting laid the foundation for a less innocent online era. With the help of CompuServe, messaging became popular. Meet AOL, which made dial-up computing simple and introduced groundbreaking Instant Messenger. It also offered a better interface and a flat-fee model. AOL’s dominance culminated in 1998 when it acquired CompuServe.

In the early 2000s, kids were using IM and creating “friend lists.” A new social order emerged and parents were left in the dark.

Soon, MySpace came along, adding pop culture – music and video – from around the world. Social media was now in full bloom and ‘influencers’ were flourishing. MySpace ultimately lost to Facebook, which entered the market in 2004. Facebook perfected friendships with better software and no pop-up ads.

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The more ominous underbelly of social media began to unfold with each successive company. In 2011, Snapchat emerged with the new twist of disappearing messages and no paper trail. Snapchat’s transience kept users clicking, increasing the risk of addiction. In 2016, TikTok arrived with short, catchy videos and a new meaning for the word “viral.”

Consider this. In 2022, TikTok had more than 3 billion monthly downloads and more than 1 billion active users. But the scariest statistic? Sixty-seven percent of American teens between the ages of 13 and 17 use TikTok.

Particularly troubling is the hype of TikTok on its way to viral fame. These include the well-intentioned ALS ice bucket challenge and harmful challenges such as the ‘blackout’, where children choke themselves, and the ‘skull buster’, where children jump in a way that puts one child at risk.

The unintended consequences of the social media ghost have long been recognized. Reduced attention span, anxiety, depression, reduced social skills and physical risks resulting from participating in dangerous challenges are among the concerns that make the news many times.

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We’ve all wondered if there’s anything we can do to turn social media into a more positive force. We could emulate Seinfeld and pretend that social media isn’t about anything at all, but we know too much. We have witnessed the effect of children being tethered to their phones. We have twelve year old boys who ride tricycles out of boredom.

We could cheer about the fact that TikTok will likely be banned in the United States. Yet nature abhors a vacuum, and a replacement technology will emerge.

Maybe that’s our chance.

We can become influencers and demand that TikTok’s successor be ‘child-proof’. We know the genie won’t come back, but perhaps we can shape the bottle to limit its effect.

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Jill Ebstein is the editor of the “At My Pace” book series and the founder of Sized Right Marketing, a consulting firm. She wrote this for