Mark Zuckerberg’s “Oppenheimer Moment”

Social media platforms are becoming an increasingly dangerous place for teens. Will its leaders do anything about it?

Our son was not at home when the FBI called looking for him. The agent introduced herself and then told my husband and me, “We believe your son is a witness and possibly a victim in a case we’re investigating.” My husband, holding the phone to his ear, looked at me pleadingly with eyes that said, I don’t understand. He asked the agent, “Will you send me an email confirming that you are who you say you are? And do I need a lawyer?”

First, she said our 16-year-old son was not in trouble. He was a witness to something bad that had happened to another kid; he had received some photos on his phone. Yes, she would send my husband an email, and then, if we decided it was okay, she wanted our son to call her back so she could ask him some questions.

My husband put down his phone, and we sat and waited. Our son was due home in half an hour. We checked the computer for a new email message. Nothing yet.

“Is this for real?” I asked, probably too loudly. “Did he do something bad? And are they going to trap him? If so, wouldn’t they just show up and demand to see his phone? They wouldn’t call first. Right?”

Then we checked the computer again, and there it was: an email from the agent with an “fbi.gov” address. Finally, just a few minutes later, we heard the car in the driveway. He was home.

It didn’t take long for the disquisition to begin. Almost as he walked through the door, we asked him, “Have you received any photos on your phone? Anything out of the ordinary?”

His eyes darted back and forth, first to his dad and then to me, and then suddenly they grew round with recollection and fear. “Yes!” he exhaled, before he sheepishly told us that he had received a message on Instagram containing nude photos of a friend.

“Oh my God,” I said. My husband was silent.

“Mom, I was freaked out, and I deleted it.”

We asked him when it had happened. He said it was at the end of our summer vacation. We were in the car on our way home.

Shortly thereafter, we called the FBI agent. We placed the phone on the kitchen counter, and hovered over it as the friendly agent’s calm voice came through the speaker. She explained to us that the child in question, the victim, originally sent the photos through Instagram to someone he thought he knew and could trust, but this message came back in reply: “Send me $500 or I’m sending these photos to everyone you know.”

My son and this child follow each other on Instagram, so my son received the photos.

Unfortunately, that’s how incidents like these often play out now—explicit photos, blackmail, shame. These are the characters in the nightmare of parents in the digital age. We still pace the floors waiting for the glow of headlights in the driveway, fighting back images of a dark road with a car wrapped around a tree. Unlike our own parents, however, we also have to worry about our children when they’re at home right under our noses. If they have a smartphone in their hands and wifi access, they are never completely safe.

The impulse as adults is to ask ourselves why a kid would put something so personal on the internet. Of course, we are judging actions based on the norms and mores of a time that might as well be 200 years ago. Kids today are living in a different world than the one I grew up in. In a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center, 95 percent of teenagers reported having a smartphone or access to one; 45 percent reported being online “on a near constant basis”; only half of those used Facebook, compared to 72 percent who used Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.

The ubiquitous participation on Instagram, Snapchat, and other platforms—both by adults and children—ushered in an era when “hanging out” is something you do on your phone rather than in a diner, in a parking lot, or under the bleachers. It was only a matter of time before more intimate relationships on digital technologies followed suit. Now, as the fellow parent of a teen told me recently, “Sending nude photos is the new second base.”

You don’t have to be a prude to be unwilling to accept nude photo sharing as a natural part of coming of age. Adults know that sending such photos out over the web or an app is far more dangerous than teens do (we also know that the old-fashioned form of second base is a lot more fun). Surely we can see that it’s time to pump the brakes on this cultural phenomenon, before we end up with an entire generation of Anthony Weiners.

Of course, every encounter on Instagram or Snapchat does not lead to bullying and blackmail, but let’s be honest, the Age of Digital Sharing isn’t going well for our kids. As The Wall Street Journal’s new series “The Facebook Files” makes painfully clear, Instagram is clearly less than healthy in the lives of teens. Facebook’s own research, which has just recently come to light, shows that teen girls point to Instagram as a primary influence in their struggles with anxiety, depression, and negative body image.

Indeed, Instagram’s algorithms are designed to keep the freshest, most “liked” content at the top of our feeds—the highlight reels of the newest and best developments in everyone’s lives. And usually, the highlight reels of all your friends’ lives are better than your day-to-day life—or at least, it appears that way. Is anyone shocked to learn that the C-suite at Facebook has always known that teenagers—girls especially—would shrivel and wilt under the heat lamp of persistent peer assessment and comparison?

As parents, it’s our responsibility to protect our children. So just don’t buy them a phone—right? Deny them access. That works for a while, as I wrote in The Atlantic two years ago. But when teens reach a certain age and they’re driving a car and their inevitable departure from home comes into focus, you recognize your responsibility to teach them how to navigate the digital world, not to suppress them from it. Thankfully, my husband and I have had many conversations with our two boys about what to do if they see or receive something dangerous online. Fortunately, those conversations paid off. When the incident happened, my son knew what to do. He deleted the message—and now he’s also had the memorable experience of a chat with a law enforcement officer.

Still, the question of when and if we should allow our children access to the internet and social media is the defining parental struggle of our time, and Generation X, the last analog generation, is pioneering this frontier. It’s no wonder we are tied up in an anxious knot.

A father of a 17-year-old girl wrote to me recently in response to my piece in The Atlantic about the angst he feels about denying his child a smartphone. “The conflict I feel is just the self-inflicted, second-guessing, guilt-trip that hits me when I ask, against my gut and also my better thinking, ‘Is this cruel? Am I a retrograde who can’t accept anything that’s different from what I knew as a teen? Am I hurting her socially?’”

No one goes through these kinds of mental and emotional gymnastics over telling their kids not to smoke or not to drink and drive. Smartphones are a whole new ball game. And if the internal angst weren’t bad enough, we’re also fighting cultural messages like this one from Teen Vogue:

When schools, laws, and parents punish you for sexting, they are usually assuming that the best way to keep you safe from a devastating privacy violation is to prevent sexting in the first place. It’s true that if you never take a nude selfie, it can’t be used to harm you later. And choosing not to sext might be the right choice for you. But sharing nude selfies is really common, and young people aren’t going to stop doing it just because it’s illegal.

Parents shouldn’t have to wage this battle on our own. The power of social media is a society-wide problem. Leaders and executives of the social media giants need to get their Frankenstein under control. If Facebook can figure out things about me—like my love of any video featuring a dog, my anxiety about my aging skin, my passion for baking muffins—then they can figure out how to curb the nefarious use of their product.

Thankfully, Congress is investigating what Facebook knew, and when, about the dangers of Instagram. In The Wall Street Journal’s coverage, the psychology professor Jean Twenge says, “If you believe that R. J. Reynolds should have been more truthful about the link between smoking and lung cancer, then you should probably believe that Facebook should be more upfront about links to depression among teen girls.”

We are a divided country right now, but reasonable adults should be able to come together to figure out a way for our children to coexist safely with new modes of technology that are not going away.

I keep thinking that when my son received the message with these photos, he was sitting right behind me in our car watching a show that I had approved. I could see him and touch him, but I couldn’t protect him from an exploitative perpetrator who reached him through a small device that, like 95 percent of kids in America, he takes with him everywhere he goes. From a parent’s perspective, it feels like the only safe place for kids is somewhere outside of our culture where people still hunt for their food and cook it over open flames (not that such a life is without its own perils).

In the 1940s, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the inventor of the atomic bomb, came to a profound moment of revelation when he discovered that there were no political or societal checks to prevent people in power from abusing what he had created. Clearly, it’s time for Mark Zuckerberg to have an “Oppenheimer moment,” and realize that he has done the same.

The legacy of the digitally shareable life is the commodification of shame, tattooing kids with their lowest moments of naive misjudgment. We must change our course. Otherwise, our children and grandchildren will be left with the fallout of an atomic bomb of our making.

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Sarah P. Weeldreyer

Sarah P. Weeldreyer is the business manager of the Washington Monthly and a freelance writer.