This op-ed was originally published in The Center Square on April 21, 2023.
There’s a lot of talk about the harms of social media on teens. Notable experts on both sides of the issue struggle to reach consensus. But state lawmakers are moving ahead with legislation to ban teens from social media.
The issue is, even if we assume the worst, a ban is a short-term fix to a potentially longer-term problem. Worse, it will likely do more to avoid dealing with teens’ underlying problems by taking control away from parents. And it could shortchange teens of many benefits online for education, networking, and more.
If these issues are truly due to social media, when teens turn 18 and become “legal adults,” the issues will continue. The only difference a ban will make is that when teens become adults, and move away to start their lives, they won’t have their parents to guide them online. They’ll have missed out on the opportunity to have productive discussions about safe practices with their parents.
Despite what legislators are claiming, bans aren’t a pro-parent approach. Legislation to ban minors from social media gives the government (politicians and bureaucrats) the power to decide what’s best for children. And as usual, it’s set to do a poor job of it.
Earlier this year, Utah became the first state to ban teens from social media.
The pair of bills ban teens under 16 completely and impose heavy-handed restrictions for sites allowing teens 16 to 18. Those restrictions include state-mandated curfews, intrusive age verification, punitive fines on companies with sites subjectively considered to be too appealing, and a presumption that any harm a child experiences is the result of social media. Parental consent is required for teens 16 to 18 to create an account, but that’s the end of a parent’s input into what they want for their teen.
Now Texas, Arkansas, and other states are following suit.
While legislators praise these bills as a solution to the mental health crisis facing teens, these provisions don’t address the underlying problems from many factors. Adding to the debate about whether social media is a significant cause of depression, experts are also grappling with how to reduce cyberbullying, curb exploitation, and protect teens from predators online.
State efforts have done more to gloss over the problems teens are facing in the name of parental choice, missing opportunities to address specific issues and avoiding the unintended consequences of such actions. What’s more, the specifics in these bills, like state-imposed curfews and civil penalties, constitute a draconian approach that removes parents from choosing what’s best for their kids.
Rather than banning teens from engaging in our connected world, we should separate the concerns into actionable items. Experts, stakeholders and parents alike should be given time to propose solutions with meaningful input that prepare teens to safely and responsibly enter the technology-integrated world.
The hard part, of course, is reaching a consensus.
To some, that’s why an all-out ban on allowing teens on the Internet would do the trick. But that would ignore the reality that teens will one day become adults and find themselves unequipped to contend with an online world, less productive, and more at risk of the concerns given for bans. It also takes the power out of the hands of parents, who are the ones best positioned to find what’s best for their kids, and puts it in the hands of bureaucrats.
Government meddling in the parent-child relationship rarely works well, and there’s little reason to believe this time will be different. That goes for Utah, Texas, Arkansas, and any other state that tries to help kids by disempowering parents.
If the warning signs are true, and social media is creating all the harm talked about in the news, we can’t simply ban the problems away. We’ll need to address them head-on with solutions that balance liberty, free speech, privacy, and parenting. Without these, we will fail to set up the next generation for offline and online success.