In a nation that adds the maximum number of vulnerable young minds to platforms like Instagram, Meta’s insidious tactics are not just a far-off Silicon Valley problem; they are a ticking time bomb in our own homes. Yet, the irony is that India is among the last to raise a flag against the digital colonisation of its young minds.

Last week, Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, was sued by more than three dozen US states for knowingly using features to hook children to its platforms.

In India, where the concept of “family” is sacrosanct, where elders are revered, and children are considered divine gifts, it’s a paradox that we’ve allowed a platform to infiltrate our homes and minds so insidiously.

Remember the fervour with which activists and social crusaders took to the streets, holding dharnas against Meta for Net Neutrality? The issue became a rallying cry, a cause that united people from all walks of life. So, why the deafening silence now? Do we consider our children’s emotional and psychological well-being “soft” issues?

The Quiet Desperation of Sameera

A few weeks ago, I met Sameera, an 11-year-old in Bengaluru, who seemed quieter than her usual “bubbly” self. “What’s going on, Sameera?” I asked (name changed to protect her identity). “Everyone hates me!” came her swift reply. She didn’t say much more, but her eyes spoke volumes. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something inside her was breaking, crumbling into pieces too small to put back together.

Later, a psychiatrist in Bengaluru told me that children’s emotional resilience is becoming “wafer-thin, thanks to the touchy world of Instagram. Sometimes, we also find suicidal tendencies, rarely, but it’s there.” It made me wonder about my 12-year-old daughter, her friends, and my nieces. The danger lurks around us, and finding Instagram accounts for 9 to 12-year-olds is mainstream. It’s fashionable, existential, and a necessity they can’t live without.

The Poison We Feed

We see it, don’t we? The anxiety, the depression, and the emotional turmoil these platforms are causing our children. Yet, we often look away, handing mobile screens to young ones to keep them engrossed and out of our hair. We’re inculcating a poisonous habit from early childhood.

When Instagram Reaches India’s Heartland

Earlier this year, I was in Dhakjari, a nondescript village in Bihar’s Madhubani district. I was there on assignment for another story, but as a journalist, I know that stories often find you when you least expect them. That’s how I met Rani, a 10-year-old girl who was as engrossed in her father’s smartphone as any child in an upscale Mumbai or Delhi neighbourhood might be.

“What are you looking at, Rani?” I asked, curious.

“Mr. Faisu,” she replied without moving her gaze from the screen. “He’s really cool.”

For the uninitiated, Mr. Faisu is an Instagram influencer with millions of followers. Rani went on to tell me how her elder siblings had been hooked on TikTok until it was banned in India. “I used to watch them all the time,” she said, her eyes finally meeting mine.

It struck me that Rani was consuming the same digital content as her urban counterparts and it was taking an emotional toll on her. “Every time the phone is snatched away from her, she goes into oblivion,” her elder brother told me.

An Early Warning Ignored: The Calculated Indifference of Meta

In October 2021, Facebook – now Meta – announced it was pausing the development of an Instagram service tailored for children who are 13 or younger. This was a reluctant step back in the face of mounting criticism. The company’s internal research, reported in The Wall Street Journal, showed Instagram’s detrimental mental health effects on teenage girls. Yet, Meta still wanted to build an Instagram product for children, promising a more “age-appropriate experience”.

The decision to halt the app’s development is a rare reversal for Meta, which has become perhaps the world’s most heavily scrutinised corporation. The company’s statement that it would take time to “work with parents, experts, policymakers, and regulators” is a smokescreen. It’s a calculated move to buy time and wait for the public outcry to simmer down so they can proceed with their plans unobstructed.

Meta argued that young people were using the photo-sharing app anyway, despite age-requirement rules, so it would be better to develop a more suitable version. This is akin to saying, “Kids are going to smoke anyway, so let’s give them ‘light’ cigarettes.” It’s a flawed, dangerous logic that underscores Meta’s ultimate motive: profit.

The company’s internal research showed that Instagram had caused teen girls to feel worse about their bodies and had led to increased rates of anxiety and depression. And yet, they were planning to target an even younger demographic. This is predatory.

In 2017, a report titled “Status of Mind” flagged how 91 per cent of people between 16 and 24 were using the internet for social networking and that rates of anxiety and depression had risen 70 per cent in the past 25 years. The report called for actions like pop-up heavy usage warnings and teaching safe social media use in schools. Four years later, Meta is sued for knowingly hooking children to its platforms. The early signs were there – we chose to ignore them.

The Digital Pied Pipers of India’s Young

We’ve unleashed a Pandora’s box in a country where digital literacy campaigns have been hailed as a sign of progress. Children, barely in their teens, are now armed with smartphones, scrolling through an endless feed of filtered realities. They are learning, but what exactly are they learning? To equate self-worth with likes? To seek validation from strangers in distant lands?

And let’s not forget the influencers, the new-age Pied Pipers, leading this vulnerable demographic down a path fraught with mental health risks. They post glamorous photos, flaunting lifestyles that are often unattainable, creating a mirage that many in these small towns and villages chase, unaware of the mental health impact.

Why are we not questioning these influencers, who profit from the insecurities they help instil? They, too, are part of this “exploitation ecosystem”, and it’s high time we held them accountable. They are not just influencing fashion choices or vacation spots; they are shaping self-esteem, moulding perceptions of success and failure, and doing it from the bustling cities to the remotest corners of India.

The Uncomfortable Mirror: What Sameera’s Silence Tells Us All

As I circle back to my conversation with Sameera, the 11-year-old who felt the world was against her, and the psychiatrist who warned of children’s “wafer-thin emotional resilience”, I can’t help but think of Rani.

Rani’s story is a haunting echo of Sameera’s. Both are young girls, separated by geography but united by the invisible threads of social media weaving a web of complex emotional and psychological challenges.

The difference between Rani and a child in an urban setting isn’t the content they consume; it’s the context in which they consume it. In a village like Dhakjari, where even basic amenities can be a luxury, the aspirational lifestyles peddled by influencers are not just unattainable; they are cruel fiction. Yet, the emotional dependencies – the highs of a ‘like’ and the lows of its absence – are universal.

We have handed our children the keys to a digital kingdom that we don’t fully understand, governed by algorithms designed to exploit their vulnerabilities.

If we don’t act now, if we don’t force policymakers and corporations to change, then we’re failing Sameera and Rani and an entire generation. So, parents, scrutinise the digital diets you’re feeding your children. 

Policymakers, it’s high time you legislate for the emotional well-being of our children. And, to the young minds caught in this digital web, remember – your worth is not measured in likes or follows. 

It’s time to reclaim our humanity from the algorithms that have stolen it.

(Pankaj Mishra has been a journalist for over two decades and is the co-founder of FactorDaily.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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