Annie Murphy Paul has a piece in Slate on counter-marketing campaigns that reduced teen smoking, and how they could serve as a model to help kids become more skeptical and thoughtful about social media and games.
I was unfamiliar with this history, but one of the success stories in efforts to get kids to stop smoking were campaigns that "relied, successfully, on teenagers’ indignation about being exploited by the tobacco companies."
It broadcast commercials—some of them directed by teens—that quoted from tobacco companies’ internal documents, in which executives mused about how to replace the customers who were dying off with a new generation of smokers. And it sent young, attractive staff members into classrooms to deliver an unaccustomed message: “We’re not telling anyone how to live their life. We’re not against smokers or smoking. We're just here to give you information on how tobacco companies are manipulating you.”
So how could we make use of this history?
Let’s allow teenagers to discover (maybe with the help of their peers) that the freedom and autonomy they feel when they’re at the helm of their computers is in many ways an illusion, and let’s help them develop the skeptical, critical stance that would allow them to be truly autonomous users of the Internet. A template for such a project might be the efforts to show young people—especially young women—how magazine editors and advertisers seek to manipulate their sense of what the female body should look like.
One of the things I’ve recently been impressed with, in my conversations both with students, and with teachers and heads of school, is how thoughtful teens can be about digital distraction, and the place of Snapchat and Yo and other services in their lives. For them, the message that their goodwill is being manipulated, that media and game companies work hard to commoditize their attention, and that if they can’t tell what the product is then they’re the product, seems likely to work.
Of course it won’t work on everyone. But it’s worth a try.