Even Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, recognizes the potential hazard social media presents for his young daughters. While he wants his kids to be exposed to technology, he says not all time spent on screens is equally valuable. Consuming and scrolling don’t offer the same benefits as engaging and building relationships.
“I want them to use technology for different things, I teach them how to code, I think it is an outlet of creativity,” he said during his Thursday conversation on Joe Rogan’s podcast.
But the youth engagement his company publicly seeks does not always align with these private principles.
During a March 2021 congressional hearing, Zuckerberg responded to a question about children’s screen time by saying that “using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental-health benefits.”
Months later, The Wall Street Journal’s reporting on Facebook’s internal research revealed the company was aware of the damaging impact Instagram had on a significant portion of teen girls, worsening body image issues for 1 in 3. Teens, it found, also “blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression.”
In response, Facebook’s Head of Research Pratiti Raychoudhury wrote that the same survey referenced by the Journal showed that for 11 of 12 well-being issues, girls were “more likely to say that Instagram made these issues better vs. worse.”
It may be true that teens perceive social media as making problems like loneliness and fear of missing out better. But only because their social networks have migrated to these platforms. When every friend is on social media, letting go means social exclusion.
Five Proposals to Protect Teens
The Institute for Family Studies’ new research brief, “Protecting Teens From Big Tech: Five Policy Ideas for States,” correctly identifies minors’ use of social media as a collective problem — one individual parents can limit, but not entirely eliminate, the effects of.
“Social media use by even a few children in a school or organization creates a ‘network effect,’ so even those who do not use social media are affected by how it changes the entire social environment,” authors Clare Morell, Adam Candeub, Jean Twenge, and Brad Wilcox write.
The brief identifies social media as a “prime suspect” for the past decade’s sharp increase in mental health issues among teens. It proposes five legislative solutions for states to consider: age verification, parental consent for all online contracts, full parental access to minors’ social media accounts, a shutdown time for social media platforms at night for kids, and a legal path for users to hold social media companies accountable.
One day, the report says, we will look back and see social media’s dangers as comparable to those posed by Big Tobacco companies, which boosted profits through making dubious health claims and marketing their product as a medical one.
Whatever temporary emotional boosts social media provides teens is vastly outweighed by the damages inflicted.
Big Tech Has a Record of Denying and Justifying Its Damaging Effects
Facebook’s downplaying of responsibility is unsurprising, considering its business model. Social media companies can’t survive without eyes on their platforms, so securing the attention of the next generation is a necessary venture.
While Meta has instituted some noteworthy protections for teens on Instagram, like opt-in parental controls, they still see minors as a large, profitable market. Instagram Kids was temporarily halted, though they still believe it is “the right thing to do.”
Teens, on some level, feel the problem of addiction. In a recent Pew Research survey, 36 percent said they spend too much time on social media. But teens, and sometimes their parents too, fail to perceive the greatest dangers lurking behind the acceptance and entertainment found online.
The Dangerous and Skewed Reality of the Online World
Accidental exposure to porn, for example, is extremely common. Nearly 90 percent of teens encounter sexual content online, according to a 2021 report by children’s internet safety monitor Bark. A majority have been exposed to porn by just 13 years old. Exposure, even when unintentional on the teen’s part, puts them at a greater risk of addiction.
If not porn, it’s only a matter of time before children encounter some other psychologically damaging content, such as dangerous TikTok challenges and influencers who promise to set young people free by helping them explore their sexual identity.
While Big Tech maintains a clear animosity towards conservative views, it continually promotes the worst of gender theorists and sexual predators. For many adolescents who came to believe they were transgender, the idea started with stumbling upon online groups who provided affirmation and a superficial sense of belonging.
When teen social interactions migrate to online platforms, they are absorbed into an entirely different world, one that skews reality. Influencers, algorithms, and peer groups grow to have a greater sway on a child’s mind than their parents; teens come away imbibing whatever causes the explore page serves up.
Companies’ neglecting to answer for this crisis while highlighting their products’ supposed benefits is no less deceptive than 1950s Camel cigarettes ads leveraging the credibility of doctors to promote their product.
Adults are not immune from the negative effects of social media. The difference is adults have the capacity to assess their own risk and benefits in engaging in behaviors. Protective measures are taken to shield children unprepared to handle the responsibility in other areas, such as driving or consuming alcohol. Laws mandating age verification or requiring full parent access to minor accounts, two of the Institute for Family Studies’ policy suggestions, would be no different.
Most parents wouldn’t dream of handing over addictive drugs to their child, yet they’ll give them a smartphone and unfettered access to Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat. Whether legislatures step in or not, parents must remain vigilant.