By a father of two girls that loves and hates social media...
We created our own entrepreneurship summer camp for our daughters this year. A big part of the camp was our own startup...a relationship app called WeGrowMe. We also watched a lot of Shark Tank, met local startup founders like the creator of Ardley, and wrote a bunch of blog posts. Sumay and Aila helped create logos, develop marketing strategies, and did a lot of programming in Python and Xcode. In hindsight...we probably should have expected that they would develop their own idea for an app. What we didn't know is that we would end up backing their venture with real money and a vigor that only a parent fearing for their children's well-bing can fully appreciate.
The #GirlsHealthApp is a social networking platform to connect girls and parents around the world who wish to share their journey towards healthier minds and bodies. Another way of describing our app is an alternative to Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and other major platforms for girls and parents that recognize that while these platforms provide the potential for fun (as we discovered above), networking, creativity, and learning about new technologies like facial recognition, these platforms also come with many risks.
In this post we lay out the pros and cons of the dominate social networking platforms and why we are building our alternative, the GirlsHealthApp. We only ask that you remain open minded until we have a chance to make our case. We recognize that trying to compete with major entrenched players like Instagram is almost absurdly challenging. But the reality is that these first generation platforms were not designed to help users...are were most certainly not designed for young girls. The good news is that if we fail to scale we still win because by building our alternative our daughters are learning about the dangers of the platforms and helping us build the programming code using Flutter, Google cloud systems, and sharing what they are learning with friends. So we can't lose.
If you appreciate what we are trying to do and want to help please sign up on our website. More than anything we need input from parents. Every conversation we have with parents is leading to major insights right now which means we still have a lot to learn. We also want input from kids, local health related businesses (details on why later), and software network engineers, and machine learning practitioners (although we think we have that covered).
Thank you for your time and interest!
Dad & Daughters
Why let girls use social networks?
Girls seem to be especially at risk to the dangers of social networks. Dr Jonathan Haidt of NYU makes a compelling argument in this Joe Rogan podcast that social media is responsible for the rapid rise in self-harm among girls. While a bit disturbing, I strongly recommend that any parents with a daughter watch it. If your daughters can handle it I would recommend they watch it as well so they can have a chance to prepare and ask questions in a safe environment.
Dr Haidt uses these charts to illustrate the rapid rise in self-harm rates of girls relative to boys. The following charts show a rapid rise for girls starting around 2009. At first I thought the cause might be the financial crisis, but the trends continued to get worse for girls even after the unemployment rate started falling. Also, boys were not at all affected which one might expect if the cause were related to economic stress on the whole family.
Dr Haidt points out that 2009-2010 was the point at which smartphone ownership went mainstream. I included this chart as well although I had to find it online because he didn’t include it in his presentation. From 2008 to 2011, smartphone ownership went from 11% to 42% ownership (4x). By 2014, 3 out of every 4 people age 13+ had a smartphone.
Adoption of Facebook and Instagram mirror adoption of smartphones. This is important because it shows that the explosive growth in these two dominant social media platforms coincided with the explosive growth in girls harming themselves.
Dr Haidt explains that social media has an especially detrimental impact on girls because of the way girls tend to 1) express anger, 2) emphasize body image, and 3) handle stress.
Boys tend to express anger physically whereas girls tend to damage each others relationships. Social media has little impact on how boys express anger, by are weapons of mass social distraction in the hands of girls that can create fake accounts and spread rumors on a permanent public forum.
Boys care about body image, but not nearly as much as girls who tend to spend more time comparing their bodies to other girls and going to sometimes unhealthy lengths to try to appear skinny. Photoshop and related tools also made images of other girls prettier than in the past causing a greater sense of not feeling beautiful.
Boys tend to express stress externally (making other people miserable) whereas girls tend to express stress internally (making themselves miserable). That’s why girls had higher rates of self-harm even before social media.
Some parents may view these differences between boys and girls as generalizations...and they would be right. Every person is unique. But I need only point to the charts on self-harm to prove that there are differences. Boys have issues also. There is a reason why over 90% of inmates are men, not women. Our goal is not to say that all girls and boys fit a stereotype. Our goal is to help parents observe these general trends so they can be more informed about risks and therefore make better decisions about these new technologies.
So why not just prevent girls from using social networks until they are in high school?
That is probably a safer move. Dr Haidt says so during his interview. Many intelligent and thoughtful parents and kids agree. Their views are embodied in the "Wait till 8th" movement which supports waiting to give kids smartphones until 8th grade.
But there are benefits to using social networks, and social costs to waiting. We support any parents decision to avoid giving their kids smartphones until 8th grade. However, we also believe that this would not be necessary if we improved the technology so we can retain the benefits and nearly eliminate the costs. Honestly, once you hear our solutions we think you might find them to be as obvious as we do. You may wonder why existing platforms haven't already made these common sense solutions. But before we get ahead of ourselves let's clearly lay out the costs and the benefits of social networks.
Social Media Benefits & Costs
Dr. Gwenn O'Keeffe describes herself on Twitter (@DrGwenn) as a, "Pediatrician, JD, author, and mom striving to help families achieve balance & sanity in a world full of plugs and distractions." She has been doing that since at least 2011 when she wrote a prophetic article titled, "The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families." The article is as true today as it was then. Here is a summary which I largely copied and pasted from her paper:
opportunities for community engagement through raising money for charity and volunteering for local events, including political and philanthropic events;
enhancement of individual and collective creativity through development and sharing of artistic and musical endeavors;
growth of ideas from the creation of blogs, podcasts, videos, and gaming sites;
expansion of one’s online connections through shared interests to include others from more diverse backgrounds (such communication is an important step for all adolescents and affords the opportunity for respect, tolerance, and increased discourse about personal and global issues); and
fostering of one’s individual identity and unique social skills.
Peer-to-peer risks, especially cyberbullying which is deliberate use of digital media to communicate false, embarrassing, or hostile information about another person.
Inappropriate content such as sexting which is sending, receiving, or forwarding sexually explicit messages.
Online privacy issues such as the sharing of children information that children may later find to make them uncomfortable.
Outside influences of third-party advertising groups
In short, there are a lot of real benefits such as opportunities to create, connect, and learn ... and a lot of costs due to the potential for amplified bullying which can take place 24/7 and from anonymous sources, inappropriate content, and privacy concerns that minors can have a hard time fully appreciating until they are older.
Any parent who wants to build a social network should be very honest and open about their own philosophy when it comes to weighing these benefits and costs. As such, Lulu and I are happy to share, fully knowing that our views will not be universally accepted by parents (or sometimes each other). The subject is complex and our views are nuanced, but here is the short version.
We employ three principles when it comes to our daughters and digital technologies like blogs, social networks, and smartphone applications more generally:
Teach kids about risks before they learn from their friends
Let kids own their personal identify, but maintain control
Give kids opportunities to safely fail, learn and grow with technology
Following these principles has led our daughters to adopt digital technologies faster than most of their peers. For example, both our daughters have laptops, Amazon Alexa chatbots, personal blogs, Linkedin accounts, and regular face-time playdates with friends. Much of the time they are not supervised except that we get detailed data on which websites they visit and how much time they spend doing various activities.
While this may appear to be a Laissez-faire approach ... we actually do have strict rules. None of their devices contain social networking applications. They spend zero time on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter...etc with the exception of occasionally one of their blog posts. They never watch movies, TV shows, or YouTube videos without permission. Everything they do with their laptops has a productive aspect to it. Both use their laptops to write code...usually Python. Sumay really enjoys writing on her blog. Aila will sometimes write on her blog, but prefers reading books on MyOn. They both have email accounts to connect with friends and family. That's about it.
For a brief period of time Sumay did group chats on Google Hangouts, but even this small experiment in social networking went very badly. Her experiences with Google Hangouts are consistent with Haidt’s views on how girls express anger. Sumay stopped chatting in groups because some of her friends would talk badly about other people not in the Hangout. Some would even try to delete access to others in the same Hangout. So she stopped participating in the group chats and now exclusively talks digitally face-to-face.
Without multiple girls in the same Hangout there seems to be less tribalism (us vs them mentality). It’s more about the one person on the screen in front of you which also mimics closely to the interactions of people pre-social media. Group chats are harder to do visually so Sumay’s friends would just text to the group. Group texting is a newer phenomenon that more closely mirrors comment threads on social media platforms. Without seeing other girls it’s easier to be mean. The girls felt more anonymous even though they weren’t. Turns our its harder to hurt people when you see their face.
Two beliefs about the future support early use of digital technology:
Personal online brands will become increasingly important to most career paths
Experience in a safe environment is the best way to learn technology (and everything)
College is a valuable tool for getting an education and signaling ones value in the labor market, but the internet is an alternative. Internet platforms like Linkedin, Medium, Github, Angel.co, Twitter, LambdaSchool, dozens of other established platforms, and hundreds of startups and driving education costs to zero and making it easier to get jobs without a degree.
These beliefs were a big motivation for starting WEquil.com. At first, we just wanted a way for our family to blog without being subject to Facebook advertising, but we increasingly recognized it as a way to learn and share with potential partners. Sumay uses our website to market her "Code Academy" school. In short, having a website helps us grow our professional network and find win-win opportunities to team with startup founders, machine learning practitioners, and application developers.
Two Examples ... Linkedin vs TikToc
My research on social networks had left me very skeptical, but I wanted to test my skepticism in a safe environment and learn what these tools could do. So I enlisted Sumay's help. First, we discussed the benefits and costs of social media. Then we talked about how best to go about research for the GirlsHealthApp. That led us to conclude that we needed to learn more about other social networks besides the ones we already use...namely Linkedin, Twitter and Facebook.
For this reason, Sumay helped me create WEquil accounts on Instagram, TikTok, Tumblr and a couple other social networking platforms. We spent some time over break playing around with these accounts. To illustrate what we learned I'll share our experience with Linkedin and TikTok. TikTok is a great alternative example because it seems highly addictive to kids, especially girls, and is very different from Linkedin which most people view favorably.
My favorite social network is Linkedin. I’ve been a heavy user for a long time. As a consultant it was very helpful for connecting with clients. Most of my 13,000 contacts were people I met on engagements, during interviews, at conferences, or other people writing about financial topics. LinkedIn is almost completely void of bullying or inappropriate content. It’s a great service to everyone. That’s why I was comfortable building profiles for the kids to share their ventures.
Sumay and Aila are regularly contacted by recruiters. Aila even received an invitation to speak at a conference. Obviously, if their knew Aila was 7 they would probably rescind the invitation, but the point is neither has a degree from an Elementary School let alone college and yet they are having no trouble getting the attention of potential employers.
Our daughters don't answer because they frankly don't care enough to check their Linkedin notifications. Its not an addictive experience. That's a big reason why we were OK with Linkedin before any other platform. The only time they go on Linkedin is if they post an article like this one by Sumay on How to be a Better Big Sister, or when I connect them to good friends and former colleagues.
What's great about these platforms is that both Sumay and Aila already have a portfolio of writing samples, receive (filtered by parent) feedback from fans, are learning to communicate their skills, and understand the benefits and risks of these technologies in ways that you can only command through experience. What's the downside? What's the risk? We let our kids drive in cars. That's pretty risky. Why not let them use tools that help them potentially avoid going thousands in debt for an education and signal they might be able to earn right now for free?
TikTok is a potentially more dangerous social network than Linkedin, but with some amazing features that seem designed for kids. Aila made two clips on TikTok after 30 minutes of practice using my phone. They are hilarious. She had no input from anyone. Sumay taught her how to use the app and she was off to the races in minutes. TikTok allowed her to take full ownership of her creative ideas and convey them in short videos enhanced with facial recognition software. Links are included below, but we are only allowing friends to view clips of Aila due to privacy concerns.
Source: WEquil TikTok Research Account http://vm.tiktok.com/h1Twoc/
Source: WEquil TikTok Research Account http://vm.tiktok.com/h1b1qu/
After seeing what she could do the benefits seem obvious. She is learning about self-expression, communication, facial recognition, production, how to make entertaining content, and other skills that seem destined to grow in usefulness as the technology improves. We are mitigating the costs by avoiding the social component. Neither of my daughters (ages 10 & 7) are allowed to use these tools without permission, and neither are allowed to post anything without my review.
Lulu and I often disagree on how to best help our digital daughters navigate new technologies. At first we thought making Aila's TikTok videos public would be harmless, but then we changed our minds. When we can't agree we have a rule that whomever is supporting the safest option wins. That has helped us to avoid mistakes. Honestly, as long as parents love their kids ... how they weight benefits and cost of technology probably won't matter much.
We are learning a lot from each conversation we have with local parents near Haycock, our daughters friends, health related businesses, and our own experiences with social media. That means we still have a lot to learn. It's a complex technology with very complex effects on our society and psychology. That's why we will always remain humble in our efforts and are eager to learn more from you.
While our thinking continues to evolve we do have a skeleton of an app and the rough sketch of a plan. For one, we plan to launch at Haycock Elementary where our daughters go to school. This is the same approach that Mark Zuckerberg took with Facebook. Starting in one school helps the network to reach adoption critical mass much easier. Requiring verification that accounts owners are parents of Haycock students (using Haycock student email addresses) also adds an strong layer of security and privacy which are our top priorities. Here are more details.
The #GirlsHealthApp hopes to solve four problems with existing social networking platforms:
Kids that quit their after school activities because it’s hard to maintain interest without sharing with friends that participate in the same activities.
Girls have experienced a rapid rise in rates of self-harm and other terrible outcomes which leading experts like Dr Jonathan Haidt attribute to how existing social media.
Parents have no direct influence over the content filters for major social media networks. Default settings are designed to broadcast globally exposing kids to all kinds of inappropriate content. Attempts to create safer social media platforms have failed in large part because they reduced the platform down to glorified text messaging services which kids find unappealing compared to the addictive nature of Instagram.
Existing social media platforms also appear to be contributing to childhood obesity. Apps encourage kids to sit for hours instead of doing physical activity.
We plan to solve these problems with a mix of common sense and our experience with machine learning tools like neural networks.
Connect people through healthy activities - Businesses like ballet schools, gyms, and martial arts could play a key role in addressing problem #1. Existing platforms connect people through other people. We want to connect kids and their parents through shared physical activities in their community. For example, both my girls go to Jhoon Rhee Tae Kwon Do in Falls Church. We are always finding other friends that go, but at different times. #GirlsHealthApp provides an easier way to connect and share progress with other girls going to Jhoon Rhee. A platform that connects local girls around healthy activities also creates positive peer pressure to continue doing these activities...building healthier habits and friendships.
Local networks - There is no reason why an elementary school kid needs to have “connections” with kids on the other side of the world. Each kid at Haycock has a Haycock email address. This provides an easy mechanism to keep connections and interactions on the platform to within the kid’s school, where they are more likely to develop more fruitful relationships. Older kids could have this restriction relaxed. For example, Junior High kids could be allowed to connect across the school district. This one fix would dramatically reduce risks from criminals trying to interact with kids compared to all the dominant platforms which incentivize global settings.
Smart content filters - All the major social media platforms use Machine learning models, but not necessarily in ways that are good for kids and parents. We want to empower local parents to help identify bullying and other inappropriate content. For example, verified parents of girls at Haycock could be allowed the privilege of flagging inappropriate content. Of course, one parent in McLean with a 10 year old will have a different view of what’s “appropriate” than another parent with a high schooler in Dallas. That’s not a problem for Machine Learning models which are very good at learning from example text and images when given enough data. We simply allow different filters at different school which also addresses changing levels of “appropriate” as kids age. This way local parents have a say in the content impacting kids in their own schools.
New business model - Most of the big social networking platforms make money by advertising. They will use everything from the words you use, contacts, use habits, and anything else to drive ads to your phone that you will be most likely to click. We don't our kids subject to advertising. That's why we will employ a new business model, most similar to Linkedin. Linkedin makes money from users that pay for additional functionality. For example, recruiters can contact anyone that shows up under their searches with job offers. We think parents would be willing to pay a small fee to have the ability to train our content filters by flagging inappropriate content (3 above). We also think health related businesses will be willing to pay a small fee for the marketing benefits they receive on the platform.
This is a Win-Win for everyone. Parents get to connect with other parents doing the same activities. Kids are motivated to keep doing activities because exercise is now a shared social pleasure. Businesses keep clients and receive better marketing than they could produce themselves.
Finally, creating a new social media platform might seem like an impossible task...but it’s really not that hard. We partnered with Wei Sin Jiang this summer to build WeGrowMe ... an app for improving relationships. It’s not finished yet, but we are making good progress and can repurpose a lot of the code to build the GirlsHealthApp.
As the father of two girls I can say with confidence that both would gladly choose a social network that focused on building local (safe) connections, used AI trained by local parents to remove bullies and scary content, and helped kids connect around healthy activities instead of empty popularity games and beauty contests. The problem is that today there is no good alternative.
Thank you for making it through this admittedly long email. Like we mentioned before...what we want is feedback and buy-in from our local community. #GirlsHealthApp is still very much in early development phase so creative ideas to rally parents and businesses around a healthier platform for girls in McLean & Falls Church are most welcome.
Sincerely, Father of two girls
GirlsHealthApp Website (sign up for notification and to be a beta tester)