Instagram updated its default settings for adolescent users again this week, attempting to address concerns raised by a growing body of data indicating that social media is harmful to children. However, Instagram’s most recent changes are insufficient. More methods for protecting children from social media are required. Congress can assist.
Although correlation does not imply causation, the increase in depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicides among teenagers following the widespread use of mobile phones is too dramatic to ignore. Since 2009, emergency room visits for self-inflicted injuries have increased by 50% for teenage boys and 150% for teenage girls.
Since then, studies have found a strong link between excessive social media use and poor mental health outcomes.
Not all forms of digital media are harmful: Teenagers do not appear to be harmed by watching television or Netflix on their mobile phones. Light use of social media, defined as no more than one or two hours per day, appears to be acceptable as well. However, when teenagers begin to spend three or four hours per day on social media (especially girls — and especially girls going through puberty), the negative effects of social media become dramatic.
Big Tech’s own data supports this conclusion. According to an internal memo from Meta (the company behind Facebook and Instagram), 40% of Instagram users reported feeling unattractive as a result of social comparisons made while using the app. “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” the memo read. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”
Adults should be allowed to do almost anything they want as long as they don’t harm others. That is why legislators have not banned cigarettes and why, after attempting to ban alcohol, they realized their error. However, young minds are unique. They are not fully formed, and products that can alter a teenager’s mind should be avoided at all costs. That is why there is broad bipartisan support for prohibiting minors from consuming alcohol or smoking cigarettes.
Minors’ use of social media may be prohibitively expensive. However, parents require far more control over social media applications than Big Tech currently provides. Instagram’s new default settings, designed to keep teenagers away from “sensitive content,” is not enough. Government action is needed.
Strong safeguards should be enacted by Congress or the states to protect teenagers from social media. Social media platforms, for example, must be required to independently verify the age of their users. This can be accomplished by using driver’s licenses, passports, or birth certificates. To open an account, users under the age of 18 should be required to obtain permission from a parent or guardian. The minor’s social media account must then be given to that parent or guardian.
These regulations do not violate the First Amendment. All social media apps have user agreements that allow the corporations that own these platforms to profit financially from the data generated by their use. These are agreements. The government has an appropriate role in regulating contractual behavior, particularly when minors are involved.
Far too many children are suffering from psychological distress as a result of Big Tech’s irresponsible profiteering from teenagers’ social media use. These social media platforms’ owners are not bearing the costs of increased depression, self-harm, and even suicide. Legislators, whether from Congress or the states, must intervene to prevent this harm from occurring.