Congress must act to protect teens from Big Tech
Instagram updated its default settings for teenage users again this week, seeking to address concerns raised by a growing body of data showing that social media has a detrimental effect on children. But Instagram’s latest changes aren’t enough. Parents need more ways to protect their children from social media. Congress can help.
The correlation may not imply causation, but the spike in teen depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicides after cellphones became ubiquitous is too dramatic to ignore. Emergency room visits for self-inflicted injuries have increased by 50% for teenage boys and 150% for teenage girls since 2009.
Studies have since established a strong causal link between heavy social media use and poor mental health outcomes.
. Not all digital media is harmful: Watching TV or Netflix on a cell phone does not appear to be harmful for teens. Light social media use, meaning no more than one or two hours a day, also seems acceptable. But when teens start using social media three or four hours a day (especially girls – and especially girls going through puberty), the harms of social media become dramatic.
Big Tech’s own data comes to the same conclusion. An internal memo from Meta (the company behind Facebook and Instagram) cited Instagram user data showing that 40% of girls on Instagram said they felt unattractive due to social comparisons encountered while using Instagram. ‘application. “Teens blame Instagram for rising rates of anxiety and depression,” the memo reads. “This reaction was spontaneous and consistent across all groups.”
Adults should be free to do almost anything they want as long as they don’t harm another person. That’s why lawmakers didn’t ban cigarettes and why they realized their mistake after trying to ban alcohol. But young minds are different. They are not yet fully formed, and products that can alter a teenager’s mind should be considered particularly harmful. This is why there is a broad bipartisan consensus around banning the consumption of alcohol and cigarettes by minors.
Banning the use of social media by minors may go too far. But parents need far greater control over social media apps than Big Tech currently offers. Instagram’s new default settings, designed to steer teens away from “sensitive content”, aren’t enough. Government action is needed.
Congress, or the states, should enact strong safeguards to protect teens from social media. For example, social media platforms should be required to independently verify the age of their users. This can be done through driver’s licenses, passports or birth certificates. Users under the age of 18 should be required to obtain permission from a parent or guardian to open an account. This parent or guardian must then also have full access to the minor’s social media account.
There are no First Amendment issues with these regulations. All social media applications include user agreements that allow the companies that own these platforms to benefit financially from the data created by their use. These are contracts. The government has an appropriate role in regulating contractual behavior, particularly when it involves minors.
Far too many children suffer from mental anguish as a result of Big Tech’s irresponsible profiteering from teens’ use of social media. The costs of increased depression, self-harm and even suicide caused by these social media platforms are not felt by their owners. Lawmakers, in Congress or in the states, must step in and prevent this evil from happening.