Isn’t it surprising that for societies with a long history of protecting children with laws and regulations nothing is being done to similarly protect them from the diverse and proven dangers of social media? We need to introduce the same age limits and protections for technology and internet use that have been in place for decades in almost every other area.
Think about it. We don’t let young people drive, drink, smoke, marry, join the army, get a tattoo or vote until we feel they are old enough to handle it.
But we put some of the most powerful technologies ever known to mankind into the hands of a 13-year-old and then step back in amazement when issues of online bullying and body dysmorphism fade off the charts, when self-harm and suicide rates explode, when rape culture sets in inculcated a generation of young children infused with porn.
For parents with teenage children, there is a growing, terrible realization that for the past 10 years, as guinea pigs, we have knowingly turned our offspring over to a great program of technology companies that focuses on maximizing engagement for profit with little or no consideration on the consequences.
Isn’t it surprising that for societies with a long history of protecting children with laws and regulations nothing is being done to similarly protect them from the diverse and proven dangers of social media?
We parents were so in love with cool technology ourselves that we found it hip and helpful and safe to get Johnny and Jane a phone, with a similar disregard for the damage it could do to their self-esteem and healthy development. The first little emoji text we got from them seemed cute. Little did we know it was going to be 100, then 500, then 1,000 – a day.
Forgive us, Lord, for we do not know what we are doing.
Try putting Your Phone down. Go on, do it now. Count how long you can go before you can’t resist taking it up again. How long did you make it Not long, right? You (like most of us) are a tech addict, and you are an adult with willpower and the ability to postpone gratification Your Education drilled into you. Imagine what it is like for a 16 year old whose entire life has been a never-ending carousel of instant gratification.
And we’re surprised when our kids look washed out the morning before school, after a night of Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and a slew of apps that your kids know but have never heard of. School that now has even more time to stare at a screen.
A license to scroll
With an age limit – we recommend 18 for phones and social media – the process of adapting our relationship with technology to our better angels will begin. Just as we teach young people to drive a car with driving lessons, classwork, a road code guide and a test, we want to teach them how to use social media in such a way that they are not harmed. Let’s introduce a “social media user license” that requires passing a test and can be revoked if it doesn’t conform to the rules of the “information superhighway”.
Some people think that social media has become so ubiquitous that it’s impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. But we don’t agree. In fact, we believe that a fatalistic acceptance of what is going on is morally indefensible. Remember, all it takes evil to thrive is that good people do nothing.
We have proven that we can put rules and regulations in place to ensure that high-performance technology is used wisely. We’ve done it before, with the cars mentioned above, with radiography and nuclear power – in fact with all of the dual-purpose technologies we’ve developed. What is different about social media? In some countries there are even signs of legislation. For example, the UK recently introduced legislative proposals to penalize or even shut down social media platforms that fail to protect children from online harm.
Some people think that even if we wanted to set age limits, we couldn’t logistically enforce them. Of course we could – with the biometric security systems (fingerprint readers, facial recognition, etc.) common on our phones today and with the algorithms that routinely adjust feeds for billions of active users per day, or with a variety of existing technical solutions. It’s just a matter of will. Then the way will arise.
To keep a good from becoming bad
We don’t want to ban social media. When used responsibly, it’s a wonderful thing. Right now, during the pandemic, social media has been a lifeline against isolation and loneliness. Who can even imagine how much worse protection and quarantine would have been without technology that would have allowed us to connect with each other at the exact moment we were being forced apart? In just a few weeks we became more physical and digital at the same time than ever before in history.
But social media has gotten so big and powerful that we have now passed the point where we can continue to justify naivety and youthful exuberance. It’s time to admit that the inventors, business leaders, and consumers – yes, we too – of these new technologies all know what we’re doing. And worse, what we do to our children.
The final objection to our argument is that even if there were an age limit, children would find a way to get around it. That is obviously true. Some children would find a way to access the technology and apps that adults use, just like some children would drink and smoke before they are of legal age. But if we believed that some people were breaking the law and there was no point in having them, anarchy would be waiting for them. Incomplete compliance with the law is not an argument for its absence.
Young people aren’t mature enough to face the bottomless scroll of FOMO, YOLO, trolling, abuse, insanity, and unadulterated filth that’s just another day on social media. There is so much evidence of the harm that it does to children if you want to look it up. Jean Twenges “iGen,” professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has a lot of details – if you dare to look.
Protecting your children is a parental instinct. So let’s act now and set an age limit to keep them from the dark side of social media until they are mature enough to make responsible decisions.