The surgeon general has warned that social media harms kids. Should they be banned until they're older?
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On Tuesday, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory calling for action to be taken to protect kids from the potentially harmful effects of social media use on their mental health and well-being.
“We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis, and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis — one that we must urgently address,” Murthy said.
While the advisory acknowledged social media as an effective teaching tool for kids that can create self-identity, provide support, keep them tuned in to current events and allow them to communicate and form social networks, it also pointed to numerous studies showing that social media use can be “excessive and problematic” for adolescents and is linked to depression among youth who spend multiple hours a day on platforms.
The advisory also says that about half of teens between the ages of 13 and 17 said social media makes them feel worse and “is predictive of a subsequent decrease in life satisfaction for certain developmental stages including for girls 11-13 years old and boys 14-15 years old.” Additionally, 64% of adolescents say social media “often” or “sometimes” exposes them to hate-based content.
One of the advisory’s recommendations to ensure a safe and healthy environment is for tech companies to find better ways to adhere to age minimums due to these studies.
Now lawmakers in both the House and Senate are finding rare alignment, supporting bills to put guardrails around social media use — such as raising the minimum age for social media to 16 years old — as America’s youth continue to grapple with the evolving mental health crisis.
Why there’s debate
The advisory says that about 95% of youth, ranging from ages 13 to 17, use social media. More than a third admit to using social media “almost constantly.” As it stands, a potential user on platforms like Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and Snapchat has to be at least 13 years old to sign up for an account. For TikTok, children under 13 can access the platform, but their user experience is limited.
But the advisory points to studies that show adolescents have a “highly sensitive period of brain development” between ages 10 and 19, when they are more liable to take risks, and when heightened risk for mental health problems like depression and anxiety starts to emerge. Studies show that social media use can also disrupt their sleep patterns, facilitate rumor spreading and peer pressure, and paint an “unrealistic” picture of other people’s lives that they may be too young to sort out.
“This population is particularly at risk since brain development in our children can make the effects of social media more significant and long lasting,” Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, president and medical director of the Child Mind Institute, told Yahoo News in a statement. “Technology is also changing how families operate today. We recommend that parents and caregivers regularly communicate with their child and provide tools to help them approach social media safely and mindfully.”
Lawmakers like Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., want to provide legislation for parents to “strike back” against Big Tech companies trying to “take advantage of” their kids. But opponents worry that politicians are just campaigning against an agenda that can potentially harm youth in America by cutting off access to communities that support them.
In February, Hawley introduced two sets of bills “to protect kids online.” The first bill — the Making Age-Verification Technology Uniform, Robust, and Effective (MATURE) Act — would place a minimum age requirement of 16 years old for all social media users, blocking platforms from granting accounts to kids who do not meet that requirement. The second bill — the Federal Social Media Research Act — would invest in a study to examine social media effects on kids over 10 years old and commission a report on the potential harms of social media.
In the same month, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, introduced the Social Media Child Protection Act, which would make it illegal for social media platforms to give kids under 16 access to their sites.
We need to equip kids with “effective tools” to navigate social media, not restrict access
“Social media in and of itself is a tool for gathering information. Blanket statements, such as this one stating that children under the age of 14 should not have access to social media, are not effective tools for changing behavior. We must give our children the tools they need to navigate the world safely, not prevent them from being exposed to it altogether." — Dr. Lama Bazzi, Fox News Digital
Kids are still mentally developing at 13
"Thirteen is too early. … It’s a time where it’s really important for us to be thoughtful about what’s going into how they think about their own self-worth and their relationships — and the skewed and often distorted environment of social media often does a disservice to many of those children.” — Surgeon General Vivek Murthy to CNN
It's just politics as usual
“Tech moves so much faster than Congress moves. The purpose of this bill is so Sen. Hawley can say, ‘Look, this is what I proposed to address this problem.’ And then there's little action that follows after it. It's a way to get a conversation going and it's a way for him to kind of campaign on this ideal of him being hard on social media companies.” — Daniel Desrochers, Kansas City Star Washington correspondent, to KCUR
Experts believe there’s a generation of kids growing up too fast
“When we talk about teens in the early stages of adolescence, we’re talking about a brain that’s under construction. It’s not so much about how they’ll behave online, but whether they are ready for what they’re going to encounter. Social media opens up a very adult world.” — David Anderson, senior director at the Child Mind Institute, to Wall Street Journal
The mental health crisis among youth reaches beyond social media
“I think they’re using social media as a scapegoat. The mental health crisis – there's a lot of factors that go into it. Yes, social media has shone a light on that for some of these kids, but I don’t think just blocking or making social media more difficult for children is really going to have any effect on the problem with mental health that we have.” — Chris Kunkle, a parent of three kids, to USA Today
There are age requirements for everything else that can be potentially harmful to kids
“We have countless protections for our children in the physical world – we require car seats and seat belts; we have fences around pools; we have a minimum drinking age of 21; and we have a minimum driving age of 16. The damage to Generation Z from social media is undeniable – so why are there no protections in the digital world?” — Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, statement
Hawley’s bill is a veil for the anti-LGBTQ agenda
“Banning social media isn’t just for the well-being of children but is rather an extension of the already present right-wing anti-Transgender agenda. Though Hawley mentions suicidality, depression and other mental health conditions in his legislation, he and other conservatives are nonetheless focused on the alleged Transgender threats lurking in every corner of social media, scheming to emasculate your sons and androgenize your daughters.” — Alexandra Kauffman, Emory Wheel