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Opinion: I can’t believe Ron DeSantis is right about this, but he is

Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor of communication at Fairleigh Dickinson University, writes about issues affecting women and social media. Her book, “Over the Influence: Why Social Media Is Toxic for Women and Girls — And How We Can Take It Back,” was recently published by Alcove Press. Follow her on InstagramFacebook and X. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.

As a progressive, I never thought I’d write this sentence: A law just signed by Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is brilliant — and should be a model for the nation.

Kara  Alaimo - Courtesy Kara Alaimo
Kara Alaimo - Courtesy Kara Alaimo

The law I’m referring to precludes kids under age 14 from having social media accounts and requires parental permission for 14- and 15-year-olds to have them. It also requires age verifications on sexually explicit websites.  It’s unclear whether this measure can survive a constitutional challenge — and vulnerable kids also need additional protections beyond its scope. What is clear is that keeping younger kids off social networks is unquestionably what’s best for them.

The Florida law, which goes into effect on January 1, stands to be especially beneficial to young girls. Research conducted in the UK has found that greater social media use at particular ages predicts lower life satisfaction a year later. For girls, the ages when they appear to be particularly vulnerable on social media are between 11-13 – when, in Florida, they won’t be allowed on social networks – and age 19.

It makes sense that girls between ages 11-13 would be especially affected by social media because this is the age when they’re typically going through puberty. As I write in my new book, during this time, a typical girl’s confidence is plummeting and she is becoming fixated on her body image. So this is not an ideal time for her to be logging on to apps like Instagram, where she’s likely to be flooded with images of the so-called Instagram body, whose proportions are so unrealistic that attaining them usually requires surgery.

It’s especially important to focus on protecting girls because they seem to suffer the greatest harms from using social media. In researching my book, I interviewed Dr. Igor Galynker, a professor of psychiatry and director of Mount Sinai Hospital’s Suicide Prevention Research Lab. He told me girls tend to care more about being socially connected, so they typically spend more time on social networks, which leaves them particularly vulnerable to all the harms they experience on them – from cyberbullying to feelings of exclusion when they see pictures of the parties to which they weren’t invited.

Boys typically go through puberty later, so it’s unsurprising that the UK research finds that they’re particularly vulnerable to social media use slightly later – at ages 14-15 and again as well at age 19 (another tumultuous time when people of all genders are often trying to find their way as adults). This is why it’s smart that Florida’s new law requires parental consent to have social media accounts at ages 14-15.

Parents I interviewed for my book frequently told me they feel pressured to let their kids use social networks because their children’s friends had phones and social apps and they didn’t want their kids to feel left out. Banning social media use altogether through age 13 will brilliantly take this pressure off parents, and maybe even give kids aged 14-15 an excuse to give their friends for why they’re not on social media —“my awful parents didn’t give me permission.”

Of course, this law will undoubtedly be challenged on the grounds it violates children’s First Amendment rights to free speech. But, as I’ve said before, free speech is legally restricted all the time. For example, law professor Danielle Keats Citron notes it’s restricted when it facilitates crimes or invasions of privacy or involves defamation or certain types of threats. Protecting the safety and wellbeing of youth should be considered another equally valid reason for restricting it.

The UK research shows that young kids don’t belong on social media. As I’ve also warned before, social networks’ algorithms feed girls looking for body image and mental health content information about suicide.

Algorithms also appear to promote misogyny when boys seek out information about commonly searched terms like loneliness and fitness. And social networks are used by predators to seek out children, according to the FBI. Most of their targets are ages 15 and younger – the exact ages restricted by Florida’s new law.

Of course, social networks are also places where LGBTQ kids and other children who are minorities where they live can find supportive communities and even lifelines. At the same time, they’re places where LGBTQ kids come up against unthinkable hate and abuse.

That’s why laws such as this need to be paired with other laws that provide offline resources for vulnerable teens. We’re unlikely to see this from DeSantis, who has an appalling record of signing legislation that deprives LGBTQ youth of the support they need. This endangers these children and is unacceptable.

It’s also why it’s all the more remarkable that he’s provided a model for the country on how to protect children from other harms. Young kids simply shouldn’t be on social media, but it’s extremely difficult for individual parents to enforce such rules on their own. Florida’s new law keeps young people away from the many harms they face online – from predators to content that can be incredibly dangerous to their mental health. This law is truly a friend to parents of all political persuasions.

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