Tech Execs Should Be Leading Teen Technology Related Issues Discussion

This post is a bit of a departure from prior posts, but hopefully it fits together with the start of another school year and the responsibility of corporations, executives and investors to our communities.  Fair warning, it’s quite honestly a bit of a PSA that no one asked for, but I felt compelled to write.

A little background.  I have been investing in growing businesses for almost 20 years, am a recovering VC who still dabbles sporadically in tech angel investing, and I am a technofile.  I love progress, technology, software, content distribution platforms, etc. but as we all know advances like these can have unintended consequences.  At home, our family has had a front row seat to some of the challenges of modern teen anxiety and depression, devolving into sub-optimal coping behaviors, and leading to more personal things not appropriate to wade into in a (primarily) business blog.

The issue at hand for me is the clear evidence that something is happening to our teen and young adult populations shoving an increasing number of them down a thorny and spiraling off-ramp whose destinations can be anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide.  Let’s face it, junior high and high school can be difficult times for some, and in today’s world, pressures are often higher, and kids cannot escape.  Snapchat, Instagram, texting, etc. can be 24/7.  There is no evening, or weekend or summer distance / boundaries any longer – and kids often do not have the maturity or coping skills to create those boundaries.  There’s a myriad of issues from my perspective with these platforms, but at a high level, kids can easily and often find themselves in social situations that they do not have the coping skills to handle or ignore.  And from there they can find content to explore unhealthy coping choices and continue the downward spiral.  Developmentally, their young brains are just not equipped to deal with these things the way one hopes a mature adult might (and many adults don’t do such a great job either…).

The statistics, most of which are dated lagging indicators, show anxiety, depression, self harm and suicide among teens and young adults spiking.  I believe this is one key area in which the technology community should be engaging and leading with a loud voice, and I don’t see it.  At all.  It seems impossible to believe that mobile devices, content distribution platforms and social media aren’t somehow impacting the rates of anxiety, depression, self harm and suicide among teens and young adults.  This is of course a complex issue, and there are many contributing factors.  Factors many “experts” do not agree on.  I’ve read and learned first hand a lot on these subjects since my own deep dive, and while I will not link to the statistics here, you can find them easily.  If you’re looking for an good primer on the subject, this Atlantic article is a good start  Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?

This is an issue for teens of both genders (suicide statistics worse for boys, self-harm worse for girls) and for young adults who are struggling with stress and destructive coping choices in college in increasing numbers.  Mobile devices, content and social media platforms are not the only factors – believe me I understand that.  Other’s likely include real and perceived pressure to succeed, helicopter parents who do not allow their children to self-advocate and fail often enough (according to an expert on that topic – me), general teen insecurity, anxiety, developmental challenges, learning disabilities, and much more.  However, the pressures of modern society are seemingly exacerbated by mobile technologies and services.  And specifically for teens, social media platforms and the proliferation of whatever kind of content you would like to find are proving addictive and likely problematic contributors.

I’m sure there is a role for parents, and I’m also sure I’ve made my share of mistakes.  But in this post I want to challenge the leaders of the technology industry to look themselves in the mirror and ask themselves if they are doing enough.  What specifically am I suggesting?  My belief is that the CEOs of companies like Snapchat and Facebook (which owns Instagram) should be publicly beating the drum and advocating for the healthy and safe use of technology among children, teens and young adults.  More importantly, they should specifically acknowledge that the unhealthy or excessive use of social media may impact anxiety, depression, self harm and suicide in these populations.  Explain how it could happen so parents, legislators, their employees can begin talk about it more openly and to understand.  They should cite the frightening increases in these behaviors, and make sure the fabric of their company’s cultures understands they should care and worry about this.  There’s a lot more they could do, but they could start there.  Get the conversation moving with some momentum.  Hire an EVP of Healthy Use – a C level exec in charge of exploring and understanding how kids use and abuse these technologies, and how its impacting their mental health and stability.

As of the writing of this post, Snapchat’s market cap exceeded $17 billion and it’s cash position exceeded $2.8 billion.  Facebook ‘s market cap is $490+ billion, cash position $35+ billion.  Kids aren’t even good business for these platforms – advertisers don’t spend millions to target 13 and 14 year olds, and quite honestly at some point something new will come along and likely replace both these platforms with teens.  But for now, in  my opinion, the leaders of these companies and leaders in the tech industry in general are blissfully ignoring the collateral damage facilitated by their products and services.  I wonder quite honestly if they even see it or get it.

If not because it’s the right thing to do, then come out and lead before others come after you.  One need look no further backward than to cigarettes and the ad industry to see that ultimately, the government and interest groups will step in if there’s enough noise about children’s health.  But by then, likely millions of additional young people across the world will turn to dangerous and destructive coping mechanisms while the adults and leaders in their world ignore the issue.  As someone who has seen it firsthand, we’re screwing up kids lives and could be doing a much better job.  At the very least we should be talking about it.  I hope people in the tech industry step up and lead.  This post is one small step I’m taking, I plan to take others as well.