About a decade ago, “something began to go wrong in the lives of teens,” notes a new report by the Institute for Family Studies and the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “Depression, self-harm, suicide attempts, and suicide all increased sharply among U.S. adolescents between 2011 and 2019, with similar trends worldwide.”
Report authors Clare Morrell, Adam Candeub, Jean Twenge, and Brad Wilcox identify one culprit as bearing most of the blame: “The increase occurred at the same time social media use moved from optional to virtually mandatory among teens, making social media a prime suspect for the sudden rise in youth mental health issues.”
The authors’ goal is to push policymakers at both the national and state levels to take more aggressive action to combat a real pandemic: social media addiction among the youth. “Teens who spend five or more hours a day on social media are twice as likely to be depressed as those who do not use social media. Several random assignment experiments demonstrate that social media use is a cause, not just a correlation, of poor mental health.”
They note “neither Congress nor the Courts have taken adequate steps to protect children from platforms that promote anxiety, envy, pornography, loneliness, sleeplessness, and suicide.” Include in that group a large number of American parents.
But you know who is aggressively combating the many ills stemming from social media and smartphones? China. Yes, that’s right — a regime that oversees concentration camps, bans free speech, and asserts the right to control women’s fertility is more serious about not letting kids destroy themselves online than many American parents are.
For years, China has been pursuing vigorous measures to restrict these dangerous tools of the digital age. Whether or not legislators take the actions suggested in the report, there’s one immediate takeaway for all concerned American parents: don’t let the Chinese Communist Party do a better job of parenting than you.
Even China Is Protecting Children
A 2018 estimate by the government estimated one in 10 Chinese minors was addicted to the internet. Consider some of the measures the PRC has taken in response, which are available voluntarily to any parent.
Exactly one year ago, the Chinese government announced new regulations that children under the age of 18 would only be allowed to play online for just an hour a day and only on weekends. That decision followed an earlier regulation two years prior that limited underage gaming to three hours on holidays and an hour and a half on other days. Beijing also established clinics that combine therapy and military drills for people suffering from what authorities label “gaming disorders,” or addictions.
In May of this year, China declared that in response to “chaos” on the internet, those watching live-streamed content via a minor’s account would have all streams locked out after 10 p.m., and that those responsible for creating content would “need to strengthen the management of peak hours for such shows.”
In February the government banned children from using their phones in school and mandated that pupils would only be allowed to bring cell phones to school with written parental consent. The ban was necessary, argued Chinese authorities, to protect children’s eyesight, improve their concentration, and curb internet addiction. Any American school could do this voluntarily in kids’ best interests, and should — no concentration camps needed.
In May of this year, PRC authorities decreed that mobile apps that target preschool children were banned. Similarly, per order of the Chinese Government, Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, in September of last year instituted blackout hours during the night, built-in breaks, and time limits in order to curb youth use of the popular app. Douyin and rival service Kuaishou earlier in 2019 had begun trialing “anti-addiction measures” such as child locks in order to limit children’s time on the platforms.
Let’s Do Better than the Authoritarians
Some of the PRC’s actions against the internet, social media, and smartphones are similar to what is proposed in the IFS/EPPC report. Their very first suggestion is to mandate age verification laws, both for pornography websites and social media platforms.
The fourth is to enact a complete shutdown of social media platforms at night for kids. Their “bonus proposal” is to ban all persons under 18 from social media. To American parents, these may sound extreme, but once you take a look at the evidence that social media destroys kids’ ability to think, focus, and socialize, it starts to make a lot more sense.
Furthermore, there’s no reason we parents can’t take many of these actions ourselves. If you are concerned about the increase in sleep deprivation among American youth, don’t let your kids be on screens for an hour or two before bedtime.
If you are concerned about pornography addiction, set up filters on the computer and mobile devices — it’s very easy to change the settings on a smartphone so only “approved” websites can be accessed, and new apps can’t be downloaded. If you are concerned about gender dysphoria, don’t let your kids have access to social media sites where the bizarre propaganda of radical gender ideology is being constantly disseminated.
We Can Do Better than an Evil Regime
The authors of the IFS/EPPC report end their document by noting that “one day, we will look back at social media companies like ByteDance (Tiktok) and Meta (Facebook and Instagram) and compare them to tobacco companies like Philip Morris (Marlboro) and R.J. Reynolds (Camel).” That’s a fair analogy: Both Big Tech and Big Tobacco deceptively targeted young people to increase their popularity and profits, and both have done terrible harm to American youth. And both have tried to obscure their culpability for causing nationwide health crises.
A generation or two ago, parents concerned about their kids’ health didn’t tell kids it was okay to smoke cigarettes during certain hours. They didn’t think simply carefully monitoring their kids’ consumption of tobacco was sufficient. Nor did they think certain tobacco products were permissible. Rather, they had come to understand that nicotine was a dangerous enough drug that it needed to be kept away from their children — no exceptions.
That, I would argue, needs to be how parents today view social media and smartphones. The things are so dangerous even adults struggle with keeping their influence in check.
Surely we love our children enough to recognize that the harm of social media and smartphones outweighs the benefits. The vast majority of American parents love their kids, and we can do better than an evil regime in our parenting tactics. Let’s prove it.