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Should smartphones and social media accounts be illegal for minors?

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Jim Schroeder - published on 04/27/22

We need a serious and open conversation about one of the biggest problems for youth and families today.

We are in the midst of a mental health crisis in this country, and this has been acknowledged by the highest offices in the land. Although there are many factors involved, a large body of scientific research has provided undeniable evidence that for any positive impact that technology may have for youth, using smartphones and social media has resulted in an onslaught of negative physical, psychological, and social outcomes that are only worsening for young people.

The time has come to ask the question: Should legal restrictions be placed on minors when it comes to personal smartphones and social media accounts? Here are the four considerations I believe we need to make when addressing this question.

On March 22, 2022, the Chief Science Officer of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Mitch Prinstein, in conjunction with a number of other professionals and organizations, sent an unprecedented letter to the Surgeon General of the United States

In addressing a specific aspect of the mental health crisis, the letter asked the Surgeon General to launch a “public education campaign” about the “specific dangers social media poses to adolescents” and the best methods to keep youth safe. 

Outlined in the letter were key findings from science detailing how social media can “exploit biological vulnerabilities among youth” specifically associated with their developmental stage, which leads to reduced health and well-being, increased illicit behaviors, misguided peer influence, and increased peer victimization and harassment. 

Meanwhile, also noted in the letter, tech companies continue to display a “lack of transparency” regarding methods designed to reward greater usage among youth. Beyond what was detailed in this letter, there is a wealth of scientific information available (I’ve highlighted some of this at my web site) indicating that both social media and personal devices are associated with negative outcomes in many areas, included but not limited to the following: attention, mood, behavior, social skills, sleep, traffic accidents, academic/intellectual performance, pornography, obesity, and creativity. 

Scientific evidence is increasingly supporting the idea that the mobile device/social media “experiment” with our youth is one of the worst developments in history.

Consideration #2

Recently, I was on a radio show discussing this issue, and one of the hosts remarked that “we all know it [the technology situation with youth] is a train wreck, but we don’t know what to do about it.” 

The reality is that parents and educators have been saying this for some time. All the expert recommendations, often involving education and monitoring, have failed miserably in providing for an improved situation with regard to youth and technology. It has been 15 years since the iPhone has been released, and despite any and all efforts to teach and model appropriate usage, the time has come to acknowledge that the situation is worse than ever. 

While the possibility of legal restrictions comes with challenges, it also comes with a promise of giving parents, caregivers, and educators “a leg to stand on.” Over the years, I have talked with countless parents who bemoan the choices they have made with regard to personal devices and social media, exasperated that they have been pressured (by various forces) to make decisions that they know are not healthy for their kids. It’s time we really consider all options in helping people do what is best for children.

Consideration #3

For any good that tech companies may try to bring about in the world, it is undeniable that they are primarily motivated by one factor — profit. This was never more evident than this past year in regard to what was discovered regarding Facebook. 

A Wall Street Journal report found that Facebook had been hiding research conducted over the past three years, which found that Instagram is harming youth — especially teen girls.

Among many findings, almost one third of girls polled revealed that when they were feeling poorly about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse. Six percent of American users and 13% of British users traced their suicidal thoughts back to Instagram. In general, the data was clear that for many youth, Instagram is an unhealthy place to be.

Meanwhile, 40% of Instagram users are under the age of 22. As irresponsible as hiding the research was, Facebook, which owns Instagram, clearly states in their documents that youth have been and continue to be one of its major targets for growth. They are currently working on building an Instagram platform for youth under the age of 13, all the while seemingly ignoring their own research about how toxic this platform is for younger users.  

The reality is this: Tech companies make more money when more youth use their platforms, and they have not shown a “social conscience” with respect to all the ways this practice is causing detrimental effects. We can’t rely on these companies to do the right thing; therefore, we must consider other options to curb the unhealthy practices of these “billion dollar gorillas.”

Consideration #4

Our society has long imposed legal restrictions on youth for two primary reasons: their health and well-being and the public good. 

From the ages of 16 to 21, individuals are restricted from or limited in the following: driving, smoking, drinking (alcohol), gambling, medical consent, R rated movies (alone), personal insurance, and credit card ownership among other things. You can’t even get a rental car until you are 25 years old.

It’s not that youth don’t have general capabilities to manage these areas, as we could easily argue that a 15-year-old has the physical skills to drive well, or a 16-year-old has the mathematical capability to understand credit card purchases/payments. Rather, it is that they lack a fuller gamut of neurological development and life experiences to manage these privileges in a way that keeps them and others safe. 

Yet, consider what we have done with social media and personal devices when it comes to young people. We have sanctioned their usage, all the while recognizing the tremendous negative effects it is having on individuals and the community as a whole. 

In light of what is already illegal for youth, it seems almost obvious that this consideration would occur regarding digital technology. I think I speak for most when I say that we would be far less concerned about our youth owning a credit card or going to an R-rated movie alone than having unfettered access to devices and the online world.  

In proposing a consideration for legal restrictions for smartphones and personal social media accounts for youth, it’s important I acknowledge a few things. 

First, I wish it hadn’t come to this point.  For those that know me, I don’t think that legal restrictions are the answer for most of the difficulties in our lives.  Rather, I would prefer other options (which might still might be in development), involving improved education, communication, parental responsibility, cooperation, internal policies (e.g., in schools), tech safety options, and overall support. 

Yet, having been in the center of this storm for more than a decade, I have sadly come to the conclusion that if we truly want to preserve the health and well-being of our youth and communities we need to do something more drastic.

Two, for those parents or educators who see this as too restrictive of autonomy, I offer a few further points of clarity. 

First, I am not proposing that minors shouldn’t have any phones (e.g., in cases of emergencies), but rather be restricted from having personal smartphones, which have shown to be the real culprit in all this. Second, I recognize that social media is not going anywhere and if parents choose to use social media, they can make that choice for their children if desired (on the parent account, not the child’s). 

Third, I realize that the enforcement of such policies would be difficult for law enforcement, who are already strapped in many ways. Yet the hope is that in supporting parents and caregivers to make healthier choices for our kids, the “downstream effect” will benefit all in the long-term.  

Ultimately, this this needs to be an open discussion. Even beyond all the dire statistics and horror stories from the general public, I have personally witnessed too many youth — even those from families with great resources, support, and stability — victimized by the current tech landscape. If there is a better way to return to a healthy place for our youth, I’m all ears.

In the meantime, it’s time to be unafraid of doing the right thing. Otherwise, what is already the most important issue facing our youth today will soon become the most important problem impacting our entire society   

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