Are social media and gaming firms breaching children’s rights?

Snapchat, Instagram, and other platforms affect the mental health of children and Jenny Afia is on a crusade to stop them.
25 June 2018

Evan Spiegel, CEO, Snapchat. Source: Flickr / JD Lasica

If you’ve been around children, you’ll know how addicted they are to mobile and tablet devices.

The topic is hotly debated in various forums, and there are several schools of thought. Some think it’s a sign of bad parenting while others seem to feel it’s part and parcel of the digital age.

Whatever way the vote sways, there’s little doubt that social media and gaming companies do have quite a lot to do with the fact that children resist putting down their phones.

It’s by design, not by choice, experts believe, and one of UK’s top lawyers, Jenny Afia, a member of the Children Commissioner’s digital taskforce, is set to take these companies to the court.

“Social media and gaming firms face a multi-million-pound lawsuit for breaching children’s human right to respect for a family life with their addictive technology,” she told the Telegraph recently.

Afia, who has represented stars from Madonna and Adele, to JK Rowling and Sir Elton John, specializes in taking on the tech companies.

Famed for getting Instagram to re-write its terms and conditions, reducing its 17 pages of legalese to one child-friendly page of plain English, Afia is keen on suing companies that are in breach of children’s human rights.

“Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights states: Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence. Previous cases have established a person’s private life includes their ‘physical and psychological integrity.’ These have to be respected in order to ‘ensure the development, without outside interference, of the personality of each individual in his relations with other human beings’,” explained Afia.

She believes the way social media firms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram have designed their technology, ensures they are addictive and keep children online.

This, she argues, would undermine the companies’ first line of defense under the Act. Because users’ don’t have the free will to switch off their devices.

Snapchat and Facebook, however, have categorically denied the fact that they’ve designed their products to be addictive.

Instead, they’ve maintained that they aim to encourage people to develop positive and meaningful relationships off as well as online. Facebook had also invested millions in a research to better understand the relationship between tech and wellbeing.

Snapchat said parents, caregivers, and young people are free to restrict screen time at four technology “layers” – mobile operator, the hardware, operating system or the app store.

Afia, however, remains unfazed. Her case is backed by evidence from psychologists identifying “hooks” like night-time notifications and auto-play videos.

According to the UK Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield, Snapchat is particularly addictive. Speaking to the LBC Radio in London, she drew attention to the social platform’s streak feature, earlier this year.

She pointed out that the app uses gamification to keep users hooked. Most active users get an emoji next to their name if they use the app three days in a row. To keep the emoji, users must check-in every day.

In fact, according to a study published by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) last year, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, in that order, ranked as the most detrimental social media platforms, significantly affecting the mental health of young people.

“Social media has been described as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol, and is now so entrenched in the lives of young people that it is no longer possible to ignore it when talking about young people’s mental health issues,” said Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive, RSPH.

Industry insiders such as Facebook co-founder Sean Parker and several gaming app designers, too, have spilled the beans on how the company uses applications that are “all about consuming as much of [people’s] time and attention as possible.”

“When you understand neuroscience and you understand how to develop apps, you can essentially programme the brain. There are thousands of people on the other side of your screens whose job it is to keep you as hooked as possible, and they’ve gotten very good at it,” said Max Stossel, a New York-based Poet and Filmmaker who’s also fighting technology at the Center for Humane Technology.

The fact is Afia isn’t alone. There are hundreds of thousands of parents, maybe even millions, who are willing to join her on her quest to get social media and gaming companies to change the way they develop their platforms.