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

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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

Contributor

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

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