Greg Bruce tries to deal with a child’s meltdown over social media.
He had been sitting in front of Google Home for some minutes relentlessly playing YouTube videos. I had to tell him to stop several times before he heard me, and when he finally did, he started trying to ask me a question, but the first three times he tried, the words that came out of his mouth were: “Hey, Google.”
I laughed, but in retrospect it wasn’t at all funny. What I was seeing in real-time was a company hijacking a child’s brain in order to drive engagement. What I was seeing was the unfolding of a terrifying scene from a sci-fi dystopia.
A few days later, I was doing the dishes when I heard him say, “Hey, Google, show me soccer videos.” Because it was nearly bedtime, I said, “No, you’re not doing that now”, at which point he begged me, in that desperate voice addicts use when they need a fix, and I could feel his mind fumbling desperately for the thing that would deliver it to him.
Then, miracle of miracles, he found it: “It’s highlights of Everton v Manchester United!” he wailed, knowing there’s nothing in the world I want more than for him to join me in the terrible, tortured world that is Everton fandom.
I told him he had to turn it off as soon as the highlights were finished, but several minutes later I realised not just that he was still watching, but that the voice I could hear was not a football commentator at all, but a YouTube influencer.
I said, “That’s not Everton v Manchester United. You lied to me. Now turn it off.” He started to protest. I said, “Turn it off now or I’ll unplug it.” He continued to protest. I unplugged it.
He became hysterical. He screamed that he hadn’t lied, and, knowing the power of the addicted mind, I’m sure he’d convinced himself that was true. He became hysterical. He tried to grab on to Google Home and clutch it to him, as if physical separation would be too much.
Usually his meltdowns have a natural wave cycle, cresting and falling on a sometimes slow but generally steady trajectory back to equilibrium. Not this time. Once he reached fever pitch, he stayed there.
He allowed my wife to hug him, but that did nothing to calm him. Occasionally he would try to speak, apparently to justify himself, but he could barely breathe through the tears, let alone talk.
My wife told him, “It’s not your fault; it’s YouTube’s fault”, then tried to brief him on the history of social media and its exponential improvements in its project to exploit the brain’s flaws and weaknesses for its commercial gain. I doubt he would have understood much of it, but he couldn’t hear it over his wailing anyway, and even if he could, I suspect he wouldn’t have been able to hear it over the voice in his head telling him to do everything possible to find out what some YouTube influencer he had never seen before thinks about defensive midfielder ratings in Fifa 23.
The meltdown went on and on, continuing on even once he was in bed. For a while it seemed like it would never end. But of course, it did, because everything always does. He went to sleep, woke up in the morning and the previous night was, if not forgotten, at least not mentioned. Although Google Home was still unplugged, I knew the battle was not over. The battle would never be over. But I didn’t have the time or space to think about it: I was too busy spooning cereal into my mouth with one hand and scrolling through Instagram with the other.