The Fight for Your Kids’ Brains Has Already Begun

Much of the drama in the charming new Netflix teen comedy “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah” revolves around the pitfalls of social media, specifically the public sharing of private videos. An early scene involves the heroine, Stacy, jumping off a cliff and into a lake to impress a bunch of cool kids, and while she does it, some of them start recording the moment on their phones. A mild spoiler: Stacy completes the jump without injury and to great applause, until her maxi pad floats up next to her and the applause dissolves into laughter.

A humiliation like this used to be confined to the memory of the kids who witnessed it, and at worst, it became local lore. But when captured on a smartphone, it could ricochet around the world. For this reason, like many of you, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to impart media and tech literacy to my kids — to the extent that whenever I reiterate that anything they put online or in a text can go public, they roll their eyes. They’re 10 and 7 and I don’t allow them to use social media yet, and I feel some comfort having equipped them with as much information as I can about the digital world. I’m not naïve and I don’t think they’re perfect angels — I know they’ll make mistakes, but hopefully they have enough foresight and knowledge that their errors aren’t catastrophic ones.

But what lurks more aggressively in the recesses of my mind is the peer panopticon they’re entering as they age into an environment in which all their classmates have smartphones, all the time. As Devorah Heitner puts it in her new book, “Growing Up in Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World,” kids “often reach for their phones out of discomfort, or when they don’t know how to deal with a situation. And they’ve all been encouraged to record.” These are powerful tools to shame, control and ostracize their peers in ways that supercharge the type of bullying you typically saw during my teenage and preteen years.

In her book, Heitner, who has a Ph.D. in media, technology and society from Northwestern University, provides an overview of the various challenges your teenager might encounter, and gives good advice for what to do if your child is at the center of a public maelstrom: Be a shelter from the storm and validate what they’re feeling; if they’ve done something wrong, figure out steps to repair the harm they’ve caused.

I appreciated Heitner’s gentle encouragement to parents to stop tracking their teenagers’ every movement and online conversation. I’ve long been opposed to LoJacking kids and believe that they deserve a reasonable degree of freedom of movement. As I wrote in 2020, monitoring younger children and teens has the potential to make them more anxious because it can send a message that they’re always potentially unsafe — or that we don’t trust them.

I also worry that when we track them too closely, we’re priming them to accept a level of surveillance from authority that has grave consequences, as outlined by another book that makes my 3 a.m. worries about violated privacy and public shaming via social media seem like child’s play. These days, most parents can imagine the viral video scenario, but fewer of us may have considered that there are potentially greater existential threats to their intellectual and physical freedom looming on the horizon.

In that book, “The Battle for Your Brain: Defending the Right to Think Freely in the Age of Neurotechnology,” Nita Farahany, a professor of law and philosophy at Duke Law School who studies “the ethical, legal and social implications of emerging technologies,” describes a near-future “world of brain transparency, in which scientists, doctors, governments and companies may peer into our brains and minds at will.”

I started the book skeptically, but Farahany convinced me that the reality of brain tracking is much closer than I imagined. She explains that in China, a variety of different employers are already using electroencephalogram, or E.E.G., sensors — a kind of brain wave tracker — to monitor their workers’ fatigue levels, productivity and emotional states.

Just last month, The Times ran an article about Ann Johnson, who had a stroke at 30 that paralyzed her and left her unable to speak. As Pam Belluck reported:

When used for good, these kinds of technologies inspire awe — even E.E.G. sensors, when used sensibly and humanely, can help truck drivers and pilots avoid fatigue-related accidents. But Farahany encourages us to think ahead a few decades and ask ourselves: If these technologies are developed without appropriate legal constraints or guardrails — the way social media ran roughshod for years, before lawmakers started pushing back — it puts our civil liberties at risk and could push subsequent generations to greater intellectual and creative conformity.

She cited a 2019 Wall Street Journal article that described how brain wave sensors were used to monitor the attention levels of students at a primary school in China, and how that data was shared with “their teachers, parents and the state.” The Journal noted that although this monitoring was taking place at a school in China, the headbands used to do the monitoring were developed by a Massachusetts company.

One sixth grader told The Journal that he “feels pressure if his parents see low concentration levels in reports sent by the school.” If kids are already facing disapproval for day dreaming — their attention waning from the task at hand — and reading thoughts is on the plausible technological horizon, it’s not difficult to imagine a chilling effect on our children’s imaginations.

“With greater conformity comes a passive acceptance of authority and authoritarianism, either out of fear or in hopes of appearing cooperative, even when that conflicts with one’s own moral compass,” Farahany writes. “Children are particularly susceptible to pressure to conform and so are even likelier to try to redirect divergent thinking for fear of being ostracized.”

The antidote to this eventuality is enshrining — sooner rather than later — a right to what Farahany calls “cognitive liberty,” which is “freedom of thought and rumination, mental privacy, and self-determination over our brains and mental experiences.”

Teacher, leave them kids alone.

There’s evidence that Americans are already on guard about A.I. the more they learn about it: Of those who have heard “a little” about A.I., “a majority now express greater concern than excitement (58 percent) about A.I.’s growing role in daily life, while just 8 percent report the opposite feeling,” Pew Research notes. I just hope that lawmakers take note and spring into action. We need to push back now, before young people relinquish the privacy of their mental data — their thoughts — without reading the fine print of some obscure user agreement, the way many in my generation did with social media platforms. Our children deserve freedom of movement and of interiority. I want us to make sure we preserve that before it’s too late.

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