Cyberbulling, poor working conditions, health implications: Why are we so in love with social media?

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What are the effects of wireless technology, cellphones and social media on children

Raffi Cavoukian is the world’s best known children’s troubadour. He is a staple of modern childhood. Both the Washington Post and the Toronto Star call him "the most popular children’s entertainer in the western world."

While I was aware of his enormous popularity, I was unaware that Cavoukian is also a writer and lecturer with most of his books, understandably, concerned with children. Cavoukian’s most recent work is called #lightwebdarkweb: Three Reasons to Reform Social Media B4 it Re-forms Us and offers an analysis of the many riches the "light" web has brought to our lives, but the book primarily addresses the terrifying darkness the web brings as well.

While #lightwebdarkweb is a warning call to already formed adult brains, the book’s primary focus is on the startling effects the Internet is having on the world’s children and in particular the effect of cell phones.

What are the health implication of cellular technology, the addictive nature of social media (SM) and what exactly do these smart phones cost the earth itself?

Cavoukian was initially attracted to the project by the suicide of Amanda Todd, a Vancouver teenager who committed suicide after repeatedly being threatened, sexually blackmailed and cyberbullied.

Cavoukian acknowledges that while there have always been bullies, the nature of the Internet allows these bullies to hide behind a cloak of invisibility, lobbing the kind of insults no one would dare utter face to face.

When the outraged public complained, the companies who built the SM platforms were quick to point their fingers at the parents, claiming that it’s their responsibility to monitor their children’s online behaviour. They should be the ones to act as censors and decide what their kids can and cannot see, not corporations.

Cavoukian rightly responds "in the age of the smartphone, how can this possibly be achieved? Certainly you can limit Internet time to kitchens and the living room, but now these powerful phones allow kids to engage in SM from any corner of the house to any part of the world."

"What stops a kid from taking their phone to the mall or the park?," says Raffi, who with a large group of fellow activists are arguing for much harder laws.

Community advocate Sandy Garossino and Cavoukian co-wrote an open letter to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg "exhorting her to lead the SM industry with systemic changes for young user safety … Facebook has become a brand feared by parents, when it should be one they can trust."

The letter did not receive a reply.

Cavoukian goes on to encourage us, as parents and/or concerned citizens, to push politicians to extend the Consumer Protection Act.

No longer would this be a warning or a slap on the wrist. The act would require companies creating software used for engaging in SM to build in impenetrable firewalls.

Yes it requires more work and cost, but wouldn’t safer environments for our children and ourselves be worth the effort?

Who doesn’t remember the childhood rhyme: "Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall/Humpty Dumpty had a big fall/All the kings horses and all the king’s men/Couldn’t put Humpty together again."

Another area of great concern is the effect that wireless technology is having on the developing brain.

Dr Martha Herbert, a pediatric neurologist from Harvard, has discovered that "EMF/RFR (electromagnetic fields/radiofrequency radiation) from wifi and cell towers can exert a disorganizing effect on the ability to learn and remember, and can also be destabilizing to immune and metabolic function. This will make it harder for some children to learn, particularly those who are already having problems in the first place."

Experts all over the world are encouraging parents to remove wifi from schools. The French National Library, as well as all the other libraries in France, have removed wifi from their facilities.

Frankfurt won’t allow wifi in schools until it has been proven not to be harmful.

A Russian study has shown the serious and irreparable consequences of electromagnetic radiation, and the "World Health Organization classified radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation as possible human carcinogens."

Children are spending far less time with nature than ever before.

They don’t interact with one another in playgrounds -- or even the mall -- instead they text one another by phone or chat in a wide variety of SM platforms, Facebook being the primary teenaged social arena.

Cavoukian spoke to a teenager about it:

"What would happen if you weren’t on Facebook?"

"I’d lose almost my whole social life, because I wouldn’t be included in all the events going on. I wouldn’t be invited to the parties you’re invited to on Facebook. I wouldn’t be able to comment on photos, to have my photos 'liked.' People wouldn’t see pictures of me. They wouldn’t … I’d be off the grid."

"How do you feel about that -- do you wish it were different?"

"Yes. I wish that it were more valued to go out and meet people, because I think lots of people have become awkward in person. And they’re so comfortable saying things online ... For someone like me, Facebook is really addicting. I’m on it now and probably going to sit here even if I wanted to do something else. There are too many interesting things to look at, or addictive things to do."

As Cavoukian presents it, these kids have no choice. If they’re not on Facebook or a similar SM platform, they have no social life at all.

Okay, so other than removing children from the natural world, losing our social skills, likely frying our brains with cancerous electromagnetic waves, what actually runs these beautiful shiny tech toys we’re obsessed with?

Seventeen elements of unsustainable elements called rare earth, and they’re mined by the poor to satisfy the desires of the rich.

ABC News did a special on Apple asking this question and this is what was revealed:

  • There are 141 steps in manufacturing an iPhone 
  • Many workers in the Foxconn factory are 17 and 18 years old 
  • Many came from the poor villages out in the countryside hoping to make two dollars an hour 
  • The sleek machines that dazzle are mostly made by hand 
  • It takes around five days and 325 sets of hands to assemble an iPad 
  • 12-hour shifts are broken up by two hour long meal breaks 
  • After 12 hours many head home to a nearby dorm room they share with seven other workers 
  • Suicide nets went up in the spring of 2010 when nine Foxconn workers jumped to their deaths in a span of three month 

Don’t think it’s only Apple that has a story like this to tell. It’s simple economics. Corporations want to get the best they can for the smallest possible cash outlay; and they’re not the only culprits here.

The price is determined by what the market will bear. And the market is you.

If the working conditions alone don’t appall you enough to demand change, surely the health implications from electromagnetic radio waves and the impact social media is having on children’s behaviour will.

I encourage you to read #lightwebdarkweb and become better informed. This is an extremely important point in technological development. It’s right up there with the car.

If we don’t understand the potential endgame here and how to control it properly, the long term effects could be devastating.

Raffi Cavoukian will be reading from #lightwebdarkweb Wednesday October 9 7 p.m. PST at the Alice Mackay Room in the Vancouver Central library.

Cathi Bond is a writer/broadcaster currently working on the second novel in a trilogy about life in Toronto during the Great Depression. Her first novel, Night Town, is available in print and digitally at Chapters, Amazon and all the other usual on-line sources. 

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