A young girl named Alexis started using social media when she was 11 and was barraged with videos about body image, eating disorders, and cutting. She developed a social media addiction, anorexia, harmed herself, and contemplated suicide. Samantha was sucked into an algorithmically fueled rabbit hole about rare diseases which she increasingly became convinced she had and began self-diagnosing herself with borderline-personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and multiple-personality disorder. CJ and Ian committed suicide while using social media. Olly was murdered in an ambush that was “planned on social media and triggered by a dispute in a social media chat group.”
It’s time to save kids from social media.
I am the senior fellow of technology policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, but I do not have any social media accounts. Not even LinkedIn. Getting rid of them was the third best decision of my life (after getting married and having kids). And there is nothing that will convince me to rejoin.
There are countless tragic stories about the destructive harms of social media. Texas should be the national leader on the issue of child online safety by taking the bold step of banning social media use by minors. States place age-restrictions on numerous behaviors, such as driving, voting, smoking, drinking, and entering into a valid contract, among other things. This proposal would recognize social media as a prohibited harm to minors.
Dozens of social media platforms now reach billions of people, with an estimated 4.48 billion active social media users worldwide. Yet it is an odd, naïve, and widely accepted sentiment that social media is the only realistic means by which social interaction can happen in the 21st Century. All the means of interpersonal communications and social interaction that existed before 2004 still exist today—including contemporary modes such as writing letters, making phone calls, sending emails, instant messages, text messages, and more. Or perhaps the most novel of all in 2022—interacting face-to-face.
The purported benefits and so-called regulatory burdens to social media companies are not persuasive and do not outweigh the harms to minors. Cal Newport notes that the social media industrial complex is fueled and monetized by “carefully engineer[ing] their products—especially the versions readily available through apps on your phone—to exploit psychological weak spots to trap you into compulsive use.”
One research study calls it a behavioral addiction which has consequences as severe as substance addiction. Among the harms linked to social media use are anxiety, stress, depression, loneliness, self-harm, suicide, poor sleep, social and relational problems, body dysmorphia, cyberbullying, crime, violence, sexual abuse, human trafficking, and cultural divisions.
In congressional testimony in late 2021, Instagram representatives complained about the difficulty of age verification. Yet now, just a few months later, Instagram claims it is taking steps to better protect kids online by enhancing age verification.
Other companies make platitudinous claims to do the same. This is not enough. This misses the mark for several reasons. These companies are already required by the federal Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) to limit data collection and access for children under age 13. With the massive and granular amount of data collected on everyone, they can track our location, search history, purchases, friends list, and more. Even with a legal requirement to verify the age of its users, this is not done.
So what can be done? Congress continues to debate various bills aimed at addressing the harms of social media but has failed to make any meaningful progress (on this or any issue, for that matter). However, the states need not wait for Congress. Other states have toyed with ideas on the periphery ranging from algorithm reform to a private right of action against companies for addictive properties. These are good, well-intentioned proposals, but they do not go far enough.
Enacting a minor social media ban in Texas is not a novel concept. Two prominent commentators recently wrote articles on a social media age limit and a ban on minors. It is clear our consumer protection laws need to be enhanced to better protect minors online, hold accountable the companies that fail to do so, and punish those who harm or attempt to harm minors online.
A state-driven social media ban on minors is the most effective way to protect kids from the harms of social media. Anything short accepts the premise that social media is not that bad. It is that bad.