Seven years ago this month, I was on a boat in Sydney Harbour as part of the Oprah tour through Australia. Her Ultimate Viewers were chosen based on our desire to use our lives to create change. Many of the stories on this trip were from caring adults, parents, and teachers who were eager to make their mark in the world, by leaving it a better place than when they entered. I was chosen based on concerns I had about our current technology platforms; that they were created to exploit our deepest fears, our insecurities. More importantly I wondered the impact they would have on children. Oprah’s famous line by her teacher Maya Angelou certainly rings true today: When you know better, you do better.
The recent announcement of Facebook’s Messenger Kids has set off a bomb within digital. It has raised the question about COPPA compliance and the proper age for our children to be allowed in these spaces. These issues are why I entered the tech industry and why I continue to fight.
It was 2012 that I gave my first pitch in Silicon Valley about the dangers of social media on children and how it impacted their self-esteem. I was kicked off the stage, told “privacy [is] dead.” It was a deeply humiliating and humbling experience, and I knew I had touched a nerve. As a parent, I was deeply concerned about privacy, data protection, and how all of this would impact children. I was asking the questions but few wanted to answer them. Most people I met were profiting off the common practices of data hoarding and ad-model algorithms. For me, it felt like I was the mom at a frat party, and I was most certainly not welcome.
During my brief time in Silicon Valley, it became very clear the ‘dirty secret’ was that a lot of people are making money off data collection practices and are happily creating products that cause rampant addiction. There was, and remains, little space for the notions of ethics, integrity, or core values. Aspects of real life did not seem to fit in an engine not designed for transparency. To say I was alone on a boat in the middle of the ocean of deceit is putting it mildly. Yet I had hope. It is because of my belief in my fellow parents, my fellow humans that I continued the path for 7 years. Yes, 7 years!
Parents, there are three very important questions you must ask and understand if you plan to use any tech platform.
What does that really mean for a digital platform to collect your personal data and be authorized to share it to third-parties and affiliates?
As a child I spent very little time with my father. His addiction robbed him of the type of father I truly believe he wanted to be. When we did engage he spoke to me about cars. My dad loved cars. He was fascinated with the types of motors, gas mileage, and all things Ford. Looking back I can still hear him say: “it’s what’s under the hood that counts, Janice.” The car may appear nice, shiny, and a good car but it is what under the hood that matters most. What great advice. Parents: It’s what’s under the hood that counts.
Like many of you, it is hard to believe that a tech platform could be so insidious and devious to actually target children for profit. It is hard for many of us to digest. We want so much to believe in these companies. Yet one only needs to look under the hood. Do these platforms talk out of both sides of their mouth? Say one thing but plan for something else entirely?
Why should we protect our data, our children’s data, and our privacy?
As a parent of two daughters aged 14 and 10, they are such wonderfully complex, erratic, and beautiful creatures. They are learning so much about who they are. A big part of their learning is trial and error, exploration, discovery, and painful lessons. This age of understanding is not for sale. Not now, and quite frankly, not ever. Once my children are adults they can make their own choices to use digital platforms that use ad-based algorithms or not. By that time, they will have evolved so much. Today, my children have the right to be protected from vultures in digital who see them as their next monetization growth strategy. My children and my communication is private and not the ownership of Facebook or anyone else.
Here is the thing about being a lab rat in a giant social media engine. Their algorithms are programmed to send you content, information, and constant reinforcement of your fears as you are today. For children, they do not know who they are going to become. They are learning. We all never really stop growing. Yet, if an algorithm trained from my birth sends me only information that THEY believe we should see, are we not lab rats?
Like Pavlov’s dog, they ring a bell and we respond. My children are malleable. They are growing, changing, evolving, and learning to love themselves. No algorithm in the world will be able to replace the long lasting unconditional love you as their parent pours on them. Children have every right to grow up with the freedom of discovery, free from commerce, and free from algorithms that wish to make them robots.
How can we do it differently?
There is a way to have a balance in our life with technology and our own desire to protect our children. As a tech entrepreneur, mother, and activist I believe it is important to have some semblance of balance in our digital and real life world.
It’s all about LOVE!
Creating a tech platform has been the bane of my existence, one filled with both joy and pain. It is quite simply the hardest thing I have ever done. There is the continual pressure to monetize and to ‘hook’ users, to increase your time and value as a platform. Every venture capitalist I meet asks me the same questions: How do you plan to make money? What makes your product ‘sticky’? Aka: What makes it addictive? I have for the last 7 years just said “no.” It’s all about love at Mazu.
Seven years ago I took one look at the environment of social media and said: this is high school on steroids, full of gossip, comparisons, and popularity scores. Becoming a parent has most certainly taken me back to those days. Those days of uncertainty and doubt. Parenting is like that, we get to relive our best and worst nightmares of school age life through our kids.
Fear based systems of any kind have one lethal antidote: Love. Yes, love is all there is. Lots of love. Building Mazu, we wanted our village to be a place where parents and children could take a drink of love and then go live their lives. We can communicate and share a bit, but I don’t need to follow anyone. All of us have been given the rare opportunity to live our own lives, to discover who we truly are inside, and as parents we have a duty to show our children more love, more acceptance of who they are. We can do this in two ways: Protecting them and Showing them.
This 7 year labour of love that has become Mazu is all about protecting our children. It’s about giving power back to parents. About giving them a voice and building it together.
We are stronger together
As a fellow human being, my heart breaks that any organization doesn’t see people as people anymore. We have become data points. When it comes to our children the time has arrived for all of us to awaken from the sleepy slumber of the last decade and begin to ask: Do I feel more love and acceptance for myself, for my fellow humans? If the answer is no, then take your power back to love and accept. It’s going to be okay. Your time was stolen and your time was sold to the highest bidder, but you can decide to just say no.
In this very divided world, it is time for all of us parents to take our power back, to place our faith in each other, to develop a place of trust. I believe in my fellow brothers and sisters. I believe in our capacity to love. At Mazu, my entire intention is to Awaken Families with Love. That when we put our faith in each other, with a sprinkle of core values and a foundation of love, we can create change together. The wonderful opportunity in technology is we can raise our voices, band together, and take back our data. The time has come. We can change this together.