Teens and Tech: Lawmakers’ Attention Required

Family advocates recommend legislative action to combat online harms.

According to Morrell, keeping kids off social-media sites is possible if lawmakers are serious about doing so. (Photo: Marina Demidiuk)

“We are on the wrong path when it comes to the lives of our kids and social media, and we need to do everything we can to rescue them from these problems that we have allowed to fester,” Michael Toscano, executive director of the Institute for Family Studies (IFS), told the Register. “We’ve done a mass experiment on our children, and the results our poor.”

The extent of harm from technology, particularly social-media use, is so critical and so out of control for parents that it needs to be a top priority for lawmakers immediately, according to the recent legislative brief “Protecting Teens From Big Tech: Five Policy Ideas for States,” filed jointly by IFS and the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC). The brief cites numerous studies showing a strong correlation between time spent on social media and the degree of mental-health problems in young people.

“Around 2012, something began to go wrong in the lives of teens,” the brief states. “Depression, self-harm, suicide attempts, and suicide all increased sharply among U.S. adolescents between 2011 and 2019, with similar trends worldwide. The increase occurred at the same time social media use moved from optional to virtually mandatory among teens, making social media a prime suspect for the sudden rise in youth mental health issues.”

 

Family Structure Helps, but Not Enough

Toscano explained that family structure makes a difference in teens’ tech use, but it is not enough, since kids find workarounds against rules. There is also a “networking effect” regardless of usage, he said, so that even those who do not use social media are affected by how it changes the entire social environment. 

“A study surveying 1,600 teens showed that teens from intact families averaged nine hours a day on social media, and those from non-intact averaged 10.9 hours a day,” Toscana said. “Both are large numbers, but a teen from a family with married biological parents spent about two hours less a day on digital media. And there tended to be a greater proportion of intact families that had rules around devices.” For instance, he said that 49% of intact families limited tech usage in some way, compared with 42% of non-intact families. 

“There is a family structure story here,” he noted, “but compared to a decade ago, every family is practically overrun.” He pointed to the Pew Research Center findings that 95% of 13- to 17-year-olds have access to a smartphone, and 45% say they are online “almost constantly.” Common Sense Media estimates that children ages 8 to 12 spent five and a half hours a day on screens in 2021.

Toscano said that a small number of teens reported no social-media usage, but almost 75% of teens in grades nine to 12 admitted using it in secret. “Even for families that want to limit it, they feel surrounded by a child’s life being entirely organized around technology and integrated into education and social life. It is up to our elected officials to find ways to give relief in the digital arena.”

According to Toscano, more research is being done by IFS for a report that will be released in January on what parents expect policymakers to do to help them on this issue. His own three children are all very young right now, but he offered suggestions for parents. 

“Families should … have a rule that, during activities, there is no use of social media or phone, so they can experience a childhood without that,” he said. “We as a society should work together. And churches should openly acknowledge some of the problems we are facing and awaken the flock to it.”

 

Parents Speak Out

In a private social-media group for parents with children who have left the faith, members were asked if they felt that social media had harmed their children. Many spoke of increased mental-health issues, especially during COVID shutdowns, despite parental limits on social media. Here are excerpts from five parents: 

 

Real Harm

Concerns have been raised about TikTok’s negative influence on young teens, from self-image issues to promotion of suicide, as a recent Daily Mail investigation highlighted; posing as a teen online, “Within 24 hours, the account had been bombarded with more than 1,000 videos about depression, self-harm, suicide and eating disorders. Some videos had millions of views.” In addition, a father’s court testimony underscored online harms targeting young people: “I believe social media helped kill my daughter.”

 

State Action

Clare Morell, a coauthor of the brief and a policy analyst at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where she works on EPPC’s Technology and Human Flourishing Project, told the Register that we must insist that state legislators act to protect kids and empower parents to have real oversight. She noted that even in the face of growing evidence of the toll Big Tech is mounting on our teens, neither Congress nor the courts have taken adequate steps to protect children, so it falls to the states to step into the breach created by the federal government’s failure to act.

“Despite ample evidence of harm, social-media use is virtually unregulated among minors,” she explained. Legislations thus far has been ineffective or ruled on the side of free speech at the cost of protection, according to her. And federal law has thus far focused on content and not on the unique disruption to children’s psychological development that social media’s pervasive presence appears to cause. 

While waiting for Congress to pass better legislation to protect children online, the brief outlines five legislative strategies states can take toward these ends.

1. Mandate Age-Verification Laws. 

Under current law, age verification requirements for minors visiting pornographic sites are unconstitutional. The Supreme Court found that “filters are more effective than age-verification requirements.” Given the ineffectiveness of filters and the changed technology of smartphones, however, the Supreme Court might now revise its decision for pornography and social-media sites. Rather than self-report, use interactive computer services to adopt age verification measures and impose civil penalties for violations. 

2. Require Parental Consent for Contractual Offerings Over the Internet for Those Under Age 18.

3. Mandate Full Parental Access to Minors’ Social-Media Accounts.

4. Enact a Complete Shutdown of Social-Media Platforms at Night for Kids.

5. Create Causes of Action for Parents to Seek Legal Remedies, with the real threat of holding social-media companies accountable for violations. 

And a “bonus” recommendation: Enact a Complete Ban on Social Media for Those Under Age 18.

Although the last one seems bold, the authors point out that behaviors known to be dangerous or inappropriate for children, such as driving, smoking, drinking, getting a tattoo, and enlisting in the military are prohibited for minors under certain ages.

According to Morrell, keeping kids off social-media sites is possible if lawmakers are serious about doing so. “These companies are tech-savvy; and if required to do it, and if there is a strong enough penalty, they could figure out a way to verify ages.” 

“This is also to protect children who might not have involved parents,” she said. “But even parents fighting a very hard battle, their children are still affected because of the networking effect. That’s why we need a more comprehensive solution. There is a need for legislatures to get involved on the policy level, to empower parents to give them more authority and insight for social media.”

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