(Some thoughts on the efforts to regulate children’s use of social media)
Have you noticed how many people ages 65+ watch television every day? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost 90% of those in this age bracket watch TV Every.Single.Day!!!! ::gasp:: And that data was collected before the pandemic! By <hand-waving logics of a moral panic>, it must be so much worse now!
And they don’t just watch a little bit. According to Nielsen, before the pandemic, these elders were watching over 7 hours a day of television! Our elders are glued to their boob tubes.
Television is a serious problem! Their brains are wasting away. Their health is suffering. Their ability to maintain friends is declining. They’re unable to recognize disinformation. Elders’ brains are not fully baked anymore; they can’t handle television. This foolish medium is making fools out of our elders, making them unable to participate responsibly in a democratic society. We must put a stop to this. We must stop TV! And if we can’t stop TV, we must prevent them from watching it!
It is time that we protect our elders by unplugging them. Clearly they won’t do it themselves. And clearly we can’t figure out how to regulate television. So we must regulate our elders’ use of television. For their own good!
Going forward: Only those under 65 should be allowed to watch television.
Now, I know that our elders won’t see how important it is that we do this to them for their own good so we need to develop newfangled surveillance technology to ensure that no one over 65 can turn on their television set. Sure, that technology might be a little creepy, but how bad can it be? It’s not like age verification face scanning technologies could be racist, right!?! And sure, some of those sneaky elders might think that they can trick the system by getting plastic surgery or wearing makeup, but we can put a stop to that too, right? We just need to collect more data from them. I mean, what could go wrong if we collected their name, date of birth, and social security number? That way we’ll know that they’re really who they say they are. Those sneaky elders.
What is New is Old
For over a decade, I studied how teenagers use social media. I had a front row seat to multiple moral panics. I even wrote an entire book dedicated to unpacking said moral panics: It’s Complicated: The Social Life of Networked Teens. I was also a co-lead on a task force on internet safety where we were asked to identify the dangers that youth were facing and identify interventions that would help. With the help of an amazing advisory board, Andrew Schrock and I scoured the research space trying to map out the different risks teens faced vis-a-vis solicitation, harassment, and problematic content. Little did I understand at the time that my real job was to “prove” that age verification technologies were the “solution” to all online safety problems. I learned that lesson the hard way when our research led us to a different set of recommended interventions. This lesson was pounded into me when a state Attorney General yelled at me to “go find different data” and when a Frontline reporter told me that she was encouraged to investigate my efforts to show that I was falsifying data to defend tech companies. (She concluded I was not falsifying data and the story never happened.)
But here we are again. A new moral panic is unfolding around teenagers’ use of social media. And once again, the “solution” seems to be to restrict access and use age verification technologies to enforce this approach. A few weeks ago, Utah took the first stab with a law that prohibits minors from accessing social media “without parental permission.” At first blush, this looks like an extension of the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) that requires for-profit websites that collect data about children under 13 to get permission from parents.
COPPA seemed like a good idea at the time it was passed back in the 1990s. In practice, COPPA is the reason why all sites require you to be 13+ to join. Of course, every social media company knows children under the age of 13 are lying about their age to get access to their sites. A decade ago, Eszter Hargittai, Jason Schultz, John Palfrey, and I decided to figure out what parents thought about this. We quickly discovered that parents teach their kids to lie to get access to social media. So much for that being effective. (Full disclosure: I created dozens of accounts for my kids for different sites during the pandemic. Over and over, I’ve been stymied by the processes of parental approval and just given up and given them a false birthdate.)
Utah’s law goes beyond COPPA because it’s not just worried about data privacy and advertisement. It’s centered on a purported mental health crisis that kids are facing, supposedly because of social media.
All of this seems to connect back to a dubious interpretation of a Centers for Disease Control report on “Youth Risk Behavior.” The report is super interesting. It turns out that teenagers are having less sex (although those who are might be engaged in more risky sex). It also turns out that bullying at school declined during the pandemic (duh) but that bullying online didn’t go up or down even then.
But the thing that caught the eye of regulators was that mental health seems to have skyrocketed in recent years. I looked at this data and shook my head. My head swirled thinking about the pandemic, the rise in financial instability and food scarcity in some communities, the rising costs of college, the rise in visible hate speech, anti-trans and anti-abortion legislation, the fear kids have of a mass shooter at school, and a slew of other trends that I hear young people angst about. But apparently regulators preferred a different interpretation. They looked at this and went: “blame social media!!!”
Jessica Grose took many of these interpretations to task in her op-ed “Stop Treating Adolescent Girls as Emotionally Abnormal.” I want to call particular attention to her colleague’s remark: “The most predictable thing in the world is for people to respond to this article with their own reasons for why this is taking place based entirely on their own specific hills on which they have decided to die.”
Still, most news coverage of these stories were full of sheer panic. WashPo responded to this study with a story titled “The crisis of student mental health is much vaster than we realize.” Their editorial board followed up with a note that “America’s teens are in crisis. States are racing to respond.” My immediate thought was: are they? They’re looking to ban social media as though that’s the cause of this crisis. As though if social media goes away, the problem will go away. A Financial Times reporter took it to the next level, conflating correlation and causation with the headline that “Smartphones and social media are destroying children’s mental health” (note: the story itself is full of hedge language like “may”). And then a writer at The New Yorker penned a piece entitled “The case for banning children from social media” that hinges on his own experiences as a parent.
I cringed. One basic rule of research is never to take one’s personal experiences as extrapolate based on them. And one thing I learned as a researcher of young people is that parents will always look for something to blame in a way that minimizes their own agency. And I get it. Parenting is haaaard. And emotionally exhausting. And guilt-inducing. It’s soooo much safer to justify the situation that’s frustrating you by blaming structural conditions that you can’t do anything about. But it’s not honest. And it doesn’t hold up empirically.
The CDC survey offers sound empirical evidence that young people are currently reporting higher levels of duress. There’s also a lot of other empirical signal that mental health struggles are on the rise. Those who follow these trends over decades aren’t be surprised. Adults are also more anxious and more depressed right now. It turns out that tends to impact kids. Financial instability, political polarization, food scarcity, geopolitical conflict, and many other factors tend to correlate with anxiety and depression, even if causality is messier. Lots of trend lines are all over the place right now on lots of different measures.
Two “new” factors are harder to evaluate. One is the pandemic. Researchers generally expect this to have negative repercussions within community but it’ll take a lot of work to tease out what is the pandemic directly and what are ripple effects (e.g., financial instability). The other new one that has become the modern day boogie many is whatever the new technology is. Social media (and, more recently, mobile phones) have been favorites for the last decade.
My research consistently found that teens turn to these technologies to connect with others, especially when they were struggling. Surprise surprise, when kids were stuck at home during the pandemic, they wanted to talk with their friends via phone, social media, and in video games. When young people feel isolated, they look for others like them in various online fora. And so, yes, there will be a correlation between certain kinds of online behaviors and mental health states.
Where things get dicier concerns causality. Chicken and egg. Does social media cause mental health problems? Or is it where mental health problems become visible? I can guarantee you that there are examples of both. But here’s the thing…. Going to school and church are often a “cause” of mental health duress. Parents and siblings are often a source of mental health duress. No one in their right mind would argue that we need to prevent all youth from attending school or church or living with their parents or siblings. We take a more tempered approach because there are also very real situations in which we need to remove some children from some environments (namely abusive ones).
So why do we want to remove ALL children from social media?
This is a story of control, not a story of protecting the well-being of children.
A century ago, we forced teenagers into compulsory high school to prevent them from being able to fraternize with older adults because we were afraid that 16yos would compete with adults for jobs as the Great Depression was unfolding. Fifty years ago, moral panics around comic books normalized a world in which we restricted children’s access to content. Can we admit that much of this content was political in nature and those who restricted it opposed those politics? Now we’re back to book banning and “don’t say gay” frames. This is not about children’s mental health. This is about preventing children from being active members of our contemporary political polis. This is about using rhetoric around children’s “innocence” to ensure that they don’t encounter views that politicians don’t want them to have. This isn’t new. This is as old of a strategy as it gets.
I care deeply about children’s mental health. And there’s a lot that can and should be done. Let’s start with giving every child access to mental healthcare. Let’s make talking to a counselor free. Let’s ensure that children can talk to a trained therapist without being surveilled by their parents (or even needing parental permission).
I am deeeeeeply worried about social and structural conditions that increase mental health crises. Let’s eradicate food scarcity. Let’s make it possible for parents to stay home with newborns and sick children without being docked pay or losing their jobs. Let’s build a social safety net.
I also fully know how frustrating it is to see your own child struggling and escaping into a zombie state in front of a screen. But parents, please take a deep breath and look at the situation more holistically. Why is this giving them pleasure? What are they escaping? What social itch are they scratching? And are you able to create other paths for pleasure, escape, and socialization?
Revisiting Our Collective Habits
I began this post satirically by focusing on elders and television. But let’s also be real. Many elders do have a seriously unhealthy relationship with television at this point. We know that the answer is not to ban elders from accessing TV (even if some of us might really really want that). But what we can see in this unhealthy dynamic is an important lesson about habits, a lesson that applies to all of us.
Many elders got into the habit of watching TV years ago. It may have started out with the nightly news or prime time TV, an opportunity to escape after an exhausting day of work. And it expanded from there. For many, the pandemic made it much worse. And as they watched more TV, it got harder to do other things. Other things were exhausting physically. Or mentally.
This is not the only bad habit we’ve seen adults develop over time. We have a better framework for talking about what happens when a glass of wine after work turns into a bottle of wine a day habit.
What we do know is that breaking habits is HARD. And it’s hard for everyone. This is why, as parents, we don’t want to see our kids develop bad habits. And, especially after the acute phase of the pandemic, many of us recognize that we — and our kids — have gotten into bad habits around technology. We used technology as a babysitter while we were trying to work from phone. And we haven’t broken that habit at all. But block our kids from accessing social media through regulation will not produce a healthy response to technology overnight. If we want to change our habits in relationship to technology because we don’t like them, we need to be thoughtful about them.
When I was spending lots of time with teenagers, one of the things that they always told me was that parents were the real addicts. They couldn’t let go of their phone (or Twitter or … ). I looked around and realized how true this is. Go to a kids’ sports game or playground and you’ll see a bunch of parents staring into their devices. So, parents, here’s a thing you can do. Every time you pick up your device in front of your kids, verbalize what you’re doing. “I’m looking up directions” will be easy to say out loud. “You’re annoying me so I’m going to look at TikTok” will be far more uncomfortable. Set a new habit. Be visible about why you are using technology and ask your kids to do the same. Talk with them about your bad habits and ask them to hold you accountable. Then you can build trust and ask the same of them.
These bills aren’t tools to empower parents or address a very real mental health crisis. They’re a mechanism to control youth, enrich age verification vendors, and turn our kids into political pawns.
These laws sound good because we are worried about our kids and because there is deep and reasonable animosity towards Big Tech. (The geopolitical fight over TikTok is adding to the chaos.) Let’s pass data privacy laws that protect all of us (including our elders who are an identity theft nightmare!). Let’s build mental health infrastructure. Let’s increase our social safety net. But please please, let us not ban children from social media “for their own safety.” Cuz that’s just not what this is about.