Media & Entertainment

We owe it to our kids to put an age limit on social media


Person standing in a circle of traffic cones to represent rules, regulation, protection.
Image Credits: Martin Barraud (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Ben Pring


Ben Pring is the co-founder and director of the Center for the Future of Work at Cognizant and co-author of “Monster: A Tough Love Letter to the Machines That Rule our Jobs, Lives, and Future.”

For societies with long histories of protecting children with laws and regulations, isn’t it surprising that nothing is being done to similarly shield them from the various and proven dangers of social media? We need to institute the same kinds of age limits and protections for technology and web use as we’ve done for decades in almost every other sphere.

Think about it. We don’t let young people drive, drink, smoke, get married, join the Army, get a tattoo or vote until we feel they’re old enough to handle it.

But we put some of the most powerful technologies ever known to humankind in the hands of a 13-year-old, and then stand back in amazement when online bullying and body dysmorphia issues go off the charts, when self-harm and suicide rates explode, when rape culture is inculcated within a generation of young children steeped in porn.

For parents with teenage kids, there is a growing, horrifying realization that over the last 10 years, we’ve knowingly surrendered our offspring as guinea pigs to a grand scheme from tech companies focused on “maximizing engagement” for the sake of profit, with little or no regard to the consequences.

We parents were so in love with cool tech ourselves that we thought it hip and helpful and safe to get Johnny and Jane a phone, with a similar disregard for what damage this could do to their self-esteem and healthy development. The first little emoji text we got from them seemed cute. We didn’t realize it was going to turn into 100, then 500, then 1,000 — a day.

Forgive us, Lord, for we know not what we do.

Try putting your phone down. Go on, do it now. Count how long you can go before you can’t resist picking it up again. How long did you manage? Not long, right? You (like most of us) are a tech addict, and you’re an adult, with willpower and the ability to defer gratification that your upbringing drilled into you. Imagine what it’s like for a 16-year-old whose whole life has been a never-ending carousel of instant gratification.

And we’re surprised when our kids look washed out in the morning before school, after a night of Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and a whole bunch of apps your kids know about but you’ve never heard of. School that now involves even more time staring at a screen.

A license to scroll

Having an age limit — we suggest 18 for phones and social media — will begin the process of readjusting our relationship with technology toward our better angels. Just as we teach young people to drive a car with driving lessons, classwork, a highway code guide and a test, let’s teach them how to use social media in a way that won’t harm them. Let’s introduce a “social media user license” that requires passing a test and can be revoked if they don’t follow the rules of the “information superhighway.”

Some people think social media is now so pervasive that it’s impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. But we disagree. In fact, we feel that a fatalistic acceptance of what’s going on is morally unconscionable. Remember, all it takes for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing.

We’ve proved we can introduce rules and regulations to ensure the wise use of powerful technologies. We’ve done it before, with the aforementioned cars, with radiography and nuclear energy — in fact, with all dual-purpose technologies we’ve created. What’s different about social media? Indeed, in some countries, legislation is beginning to emerge. The U.K., as an example, recently introduced proposed laws that would fine, or even shut down, social media platforms that fail to protect children from harm online.

Some people think that even if we wanted to put age limits in place we couldn’t enforce them, logistically. Of course we could — with the biometric security systems now commonplace on our phones (fingerprint readers, facial recognition, etc.) and with the algorithms that routinely customize feeds for billions of active users per day, or with any variety of existing technical solutions. It is simply a question of having the will. Then the way will emerge.

Keeping a good from becoming evil

We don’t want to ban social media. When used responsibly, it’s a wonderful thing. Particularly now, during the pandemic, social media has been a lifeline against isolation and loneliness. Who can even imagine how much worse sheltering in place and quarantine would have been without technology that allowed us to connect with each other at the exact time we were forced apart? In just a matter of weeks, we simultaneously became more separated — physically — and connected — digitally — than ever before in history.

But social media has grown so vast and so powerful that we’re now past the point where we can continue to justify naïveté and youthful exuberance. It’s time to admit that the inventors, company leaders and consumers — yes, us, too — of these new technologies all know what we are doing. And worse, what we’re doing to our children’s minds.

The final objection to our argument is that, even if there were an age limit in place, kids would find a way around it. This is obviously true. Some kids would find a way to access the tech and apps they see adults using, just as some kids drink and smoke before they’re of the legal age. But if we believed that because some people break laws, there’s no point in having them, anarchy would await. Imperfect compliance with the law is no argument for its absence.

Young people are not mature enough to be exposed to the bottomless scroll of FOMO, YOLO, trolling, abuse, lunacy and unadulterated filth that is just another day on social media. There’s so much evidence of the harm that is being done to kids by it, if you care to look. San Diego State University professor of psychology Jean Twenge’s “iGen” has a lot of the details — if you dare to look.

It’s a parental instinct to protect your children, so let’s act now and set an age limit to spare them from social media’s dark side until they’re mature enough to make responsible choices.

MIT professor wants to overhaul ‘The Hype Machine’ that powers social media

More TechCrunch

“When I heard the released demo, I was shocked, angered and in disbelief that Mr. Altman would pursue a voice that sounded so eerily similar to mine.”

Scarlett Johansson says that OpenAI approached her to use her voice

A new self-driving truck — manufactured by Volvo and loaded with autonomous vehicle tech developed by Aurora Innovation — could be on public highways as early as this summer.  The…

Aurora and Volvo unveil self-driving truck designed for a driverless future

The European venture capital firm raised its fourth fund as fund as climate tech “comes of age.”

ETF Partners raises €284M for climate startups that will be effective quickly — not 20 years down the road

Copilot, Microsoft’s brand of generative AI, will soon be far more deeply integrated into the Windows 11 experience.

Microsoft wants to make Windows an AI operating system, launches Copilot+ PCs

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch Space. For those who haven’t heard, the first crewed launch of Boeing’s Starliner capsule has been pushed back yet again to no earlier than…

TechCrunch Space: Star(side)liner

When I attended Automate in Chicago a few weeks back, multiple people thanked me for TechCrunch’s semi-regular robotics job report. It’s always edifying to get that feedback in person. While…

These 81 robotics companies are hiring

The top vehicle safety regulator in the U.S. has launched a formal probe into an April crash involving the all-electric VinFast VF8 SUV that claimed the lives of a family…

VinFast crash that killed family of four now under federal investigation

When putting a video portal in a public park in the middle of New York City, some inappropriate behavior will likely occur. The Portal, the vision of Lithuanian artist and…

NYC-Dublin real-time video portal reopens with some fixes to prevent inappropriate behavior

Longtime New York-based seed investor, Contour Venture Partners, is making progress on its latest flagship fund after lowering its target. The firm closed on $42 million, raised from 64 backers,…

Contour Venture Partners, an early investor in Datadog and Movable Ink, lowers the target for its fifth fund

Meta’s Oversight Board has now extended its scope to include the company’s newest platform, Instagram Threads, and has begun hearing cases from Threads.

Meta’s Oversight Board takes its first Threads case

The company says it’s refocusing and prioritizing fewer initiatives that will have the biggest impact on customers and add value to the business.

SeekOut, a recruiting startup last valued at $1.2 billion, lays off 30% of its workforce

The U.K.’s self-proclaimed “world-leading” regulations for self-driving cars are now official, after the Automated Vehicles (AV) Act received royal assent — the final rubber stamp any legislation must go through…

UK’s autonomous vehicle legislation becomes law, paving the way for first driverless cars by 2026

ChatGPT, OpenAI’s text-generating AI chatbot, has taken the world by storm. What started as a tool to hyper-charge productivity through writing essays and code with short text prompts has evolved…

ChatGPT: Everything you need to know about the AI-powered chatbot

SoLo Funds CEO Travis Holoway: “Regulators seem driven by press releases when they should be motivated by true consumer protection and empowering equitable solutions.”

Fintech lender SoLo Funds is being sued again by the government over its lending practices

Hard tech startups generate a lot of buzz, but there’s a growing cohort of companies building digital tools squarely focused on making hard tech development faster, more efficient and —…

Rollup wants to be the hardware engineer’s workhorse

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is not just about groundbreaking innovations, insightful panels, and visionary speakers — it’s also about listening to YOU, the audience, and what you feel is top of…

Disrupt Audience Choice vote closes Friday

Google says the new SDK would help Google expand on its core mission of connecting the right audience to the right content at the right time.

Google is launching a new Android feature to drive users back into their installed apps

Jolla has taken the official wraps off the first version of its personal server-based AI assistant in the making. The reborn startup is building a privacy-focused AI device — aka…

Jolla debuts privacy-focused AI hardware

The ChatGPT mobile app’s net revenue first jumped 22% on the day of the GPT-4o launch and continued to grow in the following days.

ChatGPT’s mobile app revenue saw its biggest spike yet following GPT-4o launch

Dating app maker Bumble has acquired Geneva, an online platform built around forming real-world groups and clubs. The company said that the deal is designed to help it expand its…

Bumble buys community building app Geneva to expand further into friendships

CyberArk — one of the army of larger security companies founded out of Israel — is acquiring Venafi, a specialist in machine identity, for $1.54 billion. 

CyberArk snaps up Venafi for $1.54B to ramp up in machine-to-machine security

Founder-market fit is one of the most crucial factors in a startup’s success, and operators (someone involved in the day-to-day operations of a startup) turned founders have an almost unfair advantage…

OpenseedVC, which backs operators in Africa and Europe starting their companies, reaches first close of $10M fund

A Singapore High Court has effectively approved Pine Labs’ request to shift its operations to India.

Pine Labs gets Singapore court approval to shift base to India

The AI Safety Institute, a U.K. body that aims to assess and address risks in AI platforms, has said it will open a second location in San Francisco. 

UK opens office in San Francisco to tackle AI risk

Companies are always looking for an edge, and searching for ways to encourage their employees to innovate. One way to do that is by running an internal hackathon around a…

Why companies are turning to internal hackathons

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

1 day ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions