They threw the book on Big Tobacco and it worked. Let’s try with Big Tech to stop the harmful use of social media

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Are social networks harmful for children? Some people are still skeptical about this: a few experts, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Big Tech itself, of course. Put a small smart device in teens’ hands, connect them to platforms they find irresistible, and what could go wrong?

A lot. Boys become addicted to online games and YouTube, girls to chat and photo-sharing platforms. They spend less time with their friends in person. Girls in particular are spending more time in their bedrooms browsing their Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram accounts, looking for likes, comparing themselves to other kids, celebrities and influencers, and getting sadder and sadder. Sometimes we commit suicide.

It has been four years since Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at the University of San Diego, showed how the arrival of the smartphone (2007) coincided with a sharp increase in depression, self-harm, suicide attempts and suicide among the American generation. born after 1995.

The US public health agency, the CDC, found that in 2019, an alarming 37% of US high school students reported “lingering feelings of sadness or hopelessness” – a 40% increase between 2009 and 2019. This trend has been accentuated by Covid-19. , but he was there before the pandemic.

There’s been a lot of backlash against Twenge’s work, especially from the social media big guns themselves. However, a year ago, a former Facebook/Meta employee turned whistleblower revealed that the company’s own research in 2020 showed its Instagram platform causes anxiety about body image. in girls.

Incredibly, Facebook sat on this information and went on to plan a new “service” for tweens called Instagram Kids. “They’re coming for your children” sounds true in this case; Big Tech is there to hook youngsters, and Meta, for her part, doesn’t want parents to get in the way. He insists that teens allow parental controls to be enabled – and teens can revoke them at any time.

What does Meta care if young girls look miserable, or steal time from their sleep and increase their risk of depression? Does ByteDance take seriously the possible link between the madness of its TikTok platform and the appearance of strange and nervous tics in girls?

This is what parents are faced with and the resources available to them are woefully inadequate. Some manage to keep their own smartphones free for kids, but the social pressures for teenagers are very strong when most of their peers network by phone and follow the latest fashions.

Strangely, lawmakers keen to protect teens by banning everything from smoking to “conversion therapy” stand back when it comes to a much more widespread threat. It is high time they acted.

And they can, says a group of US experts in a legislative memo released last week containing six policy ideas for states – including one very bold proposal.

In America, they point out, U.S. Supreme Court rulings have limited Congress’s power to pass effective legislation to protect children, even from sexually explicit content, and its historical interest in indecent content is passing. alongside “the unique disruption to children’s psychological development that the pervasive social media presence seems to cause.

(Australia recently changed its laws to crack down on adult “cyber abuse,” and New Zealand approved a voluntary code by which Meta, Google, TikTok, Amazon, and Twitter will remove abusive content, “misinformation, and misinformation” – again, focused on adults.)

What is needed, they say, is for states to pick up the slack, using their legislative power to protect children from platforms that promote anxiety, envy, pornography, loneliness, insomnia and suicide. Here is a brief summary of their proposals based on their article in The Deseret News:

1. Enact Age Verification Laws so that no minor under the age of 13 can create accounts on social networks. Although this is already the de facto legal age for social media, children under 13 have access to it, and these young children are more vulnerable to adverse mental health effects.

2. Require parental consent of minors to open an account on social networks. When people join social media websites or use most commercial websites, they agree to terms of service, which are binding contracts. It is therefore reasonable to anticipate that parental consent would be required for anyone under the age of 18.

3. Mandate full parental access to social media accounts of minors (ages 13-17). Full access would ensure parents are in control of their minor child’s account settings so they can restrict their privacy, review friend requests, and know exactly what their child is doing online.

While parents can currently use various parental control apps for purchase, some platforms, like TikTok, may not be covered, or parents may not be able to fully monitor all aspects of the account. Government intervention is needed to provide full access and empower all parents, not just those who can afford a private option.

4. Enact a complete shutdown of social media platforms at night for minors. This would align with typical nighttime sleep times, say, 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m., and eliminate the temptation for teens to stay up late on social media. This is an important step to take, as technology-induced lack of sleep is a major driver of teen depression.

5. Create causes of action for parents to seek legal remedies with alleged damages. Any law passed by a state to protect children online should include a private cause of action to allow parents to sue on behalf of their children for any violation of the law. These companies aim to maximize their profits, so there must be a threat significant enough for them to correct their behavior.

6. Enact a complete social media ban for those under 18. It’s the boldest proposal of all, but not without precedent. Many states already impose age restrictions on many behaviors known to be dangerous or inappropriate for children, such as driving, smoking, drinking, getting tattoos and enlisting in the military. Similarly, a state could recognize social media as an activity prohibited to minors.

Of course, such a social media ban for children would be controversial. Big Tech would fight it tooth and nail. Kids would hate that. The liberal establishment would lower its arms in horror. But parents might welcome a measure that would ease the burden of fighting the new media barons virtually alone.

As the authors of the note point out, the problem of social networks is no longer a private problem:

“The use of social media by even a few children in a school or organization creates a ‘network effect’ such that even those who do not use social media are affected by how it changes the whole social environment. A collective solution is needed. A blanket age ban would put the onus where it belongs: on social media companies that have designed their platforms to be addictive, especially for the most vulnerable: children.

“One day,” they add, “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 RJ Reynolds (Camel )”.

Big Tobacco has enjoyed immense profits and popularity while obscuring the science of its harms, and even launching misleading advertisements at children. But eventually it became known and they were held responsible.

Now it’s Big Tech’s turn to face responsibility for its “harmful influence on our children”, the report concludes. Before it is too late.

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