We are in the midst of a mental health crisis in this country.
Although there are many factors, a large body of scientific research has provided evidence that for youth, smartphones and social media have resulted in a physical onslaught of negative, psychological, and social outcomes.
The time has come to ask: Should legal restrictions be placed on minors when it comes to personal smartphones and social media accounts? Here are four key considerations.
First, 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. Research highlights the significant risk they pose. On March 22, the chief science officer of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Mitch Prinstein, sent an unprecedented letter to the US Surgeon General. 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.
I recently discussed this issue on a radio show, and one of the hosts remarked that “we all know it is a train wreck, but we don’t know what to do about it.” All the expert recommendations, often involving education and monitoring, have failed miserably. It has been 15 years since the iPhone has been released, and despite efforts to teach appropriate use, the situation is worse than ever.
While legal restrictions would come with challenges, it also offers the promise of giving parents, caregivers and educators “a leg to stand on.” I have talked with countless parents who bemoan the choices they have made on personal devices and social media, feeling pressured to make decisions they know are unhealthy for kids.
For any good that tech companies may bring about, they are primarily motivated by profit. This was never more evident than this past year with Facebook. A Wall Street Journal report found that Facebook had been hiding research conducted over three years that found Instagram is harming youth — especially teen girls. Almost one-third of girls polled revealed that when they were feeling poorly about their body, Instagram made them feel worse. Six percent of American users and 13 percent of British users traced suicidal thoughts back to Instagram.
Meanwhile, 40% of Instagram users are under age 22. As irresponsible as hiding the research was, Facebook, which owns Instagram, clearly states in documents that youth have been and continue to be one a major growth target. They are currently working on building an Instagram platform for children under 13, seemingly ignoring their own research on a platform that is toxic for children.
Tech companies make more money when more young people use their platforms, and they have not shown a social conscience about the detrimental effects. We must consider other options, including legal ones, to curb the unhealthy practices of these companies.
There is one more key issue to consider: Our society has long imposed legal restrictions on youth for two primary reasons: their health and well-being and the public good.
Children are restricted from or limited in driving, smoking, drinking alcohol, gambling, medical consent, R-rated movies, insurance, car rental and credit card ownership, among other things. It’s not that youth don’t have general capabilities to manage these areas, it’s that they lack the full neurological development and life experiences to manage these privileges in a safe way. Yet, I am far less concerned about youth owning a credit card or going to an R-rated movie alone than having unfettered access to devices and the online world.
I wish it hadn’t come to this point. I don’t think legal restrictions are the answer for most of the difficulties in our lives. I would prefer improved education, communication, parental responsibility, cooperation, internal policies (in schools, for example), tech safety options and overall support. But I have come to the conclusion that if we want to preserve the health and well-being of our youth, we need to do something more drastic.
A few points of clarity: I am not proposing minors shouldn’t have any phones (in cases of emergencies), but rather be restricted from having personal smartphones, which have shown to be the real culprit. And I recognize 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).
I realize that the enforcement of such policies would be difficult for law enforcement. Yet the hope is that in making healthier choices for our kids, the “downstream effect” will benefit all.
James Schroeder is a husband and father of eight children and a pediatric psychologist. He is the author of five books and numerous articles, which can be found on Amazon or his website, www.james-schroeder.com. Send comments to email@example.com.