It is now firmly established that social media are ruining the minds and bodies of America’s children. Facebook‘s own internal studies find that among teens, especially teen girls, the company’s products lead to “increases in the rate of anxiety and depression.” Social media are designed to be addictive. Heavy use leads to sleep disorders, body dysmorphia, and suicidal thoughts.
This should be enough reason for a sane society to stop, think, and change course. They are kids, after all, who deserve peace of mind and time with their loved ones undisturbed by digital encroachments. But we live in a technological age, in which the imperatives of Silicon Valley are given precedence over everything, including the well being of children. So instead of sending our kids a life raft, we are packing their bags for the Metaverse, where their minds will be beyond reach.
What can parents do to help their kids? That’s what the Institute for Family Studies (IFS), where I am executive director, and the Wheatley Institute asked with Teens and Tech: What Difference Does Family Structure Make?, based on an original survey, fielded by Ipsos, of 1,600 U.S. teens ages 11 to 18.
The study found that, when it comes to tech use and mental health, family structure matters. Kids growing up with married biological parents spend an average of 9 hours per day on digital media, i.e., social media, texting, and video games. That’s a whole lot. But it’s worse elsewhere. Kids from non-intact families were on social media an average of 10.9 hours per day. Over the span of a year, that’s a difference of more than 700 hours. That’s 700 fewer hours of sleeping, reading books, riding bikes, playing in the fresh air, and being fully present with others. Think about what that means over a lifetime. It could be the difference between a lonely life and a life more fully lived.
Kids from intact marriages were more likely to have clear household rules around tech use, which helps to explain the divergence above. Fifty-four percent of intact families did not allow kids to use devices after bedtime, compared with 50 percent of non-intact; 49 percent of intact families put limits on social media use, compared with 42 percent of non-intact; and, finally, 59 percent of intact families barred tech usage during mealtime, compared with 51 percent of non-intact families.
This has big implications for mental health. Teens with heavy tech use in non-intact families were the likeliest to report being depressed, lonely, sleep deprived, or dissatisfied with life, heaping disadvantage on disadvantage.
The authors of the report give six recommendations to parents seeking to help their kids master tech, with perhaps the most important being, “Work together.” As they put it:
This would help teens foster the kinds of relationships they so severely lack in the digital age.
Still, the report’s findings glimpse the limits of what even the most proactive parents can do. Of high school-age teens in the sample whose parents forbid them to use tech, 76 percent still use it in secret. Strong families are a buffer against the worst harms of Big Tech, but they are surrounded. Big Tech invests untold sums of money, employing world-class psychologists and behaviorists, to capture the will of our children. The dopamine hits it routinely delivers, the sheer ubiquity of it, the way it has become the center of kids’ social lives, mean even the most heroic parents will need help.
The help must include public policy. There are related questions about bias on social media platforms and the market distortions of Big Tech monopolies—but those demand other remedies. When it comes to teen mental health, the objectives must be twofold: limit technology’s reach into the lives of kids and empower parents.
In August, IFS and the Ethics and Public Policy Center co-released “Protecting Teens from Big Tech: Five Policy Ideas for States” (though some of the ideas could be applied to the federal level, too). The brief proposed several legislative approaches, including completely shutting down social media platforms during sleeping hours for kids. This might strike the reader as a misfire, but it’s a bullseye. Many teens are plagued by a lack of good sleep, because they are under the hypnotic spell of the blue light long into the night even though, shortly after, they will head off to school. We cannot leave them to weary and wither.
Even more impactful is to mandate strict age-verification standards, which the brief also proposes.
“Such measures,” the authors write, “could include a driver’s license, a passport, a birth certificate, or a signed, notarized statement from a parent attesting to a minor’s date of birth, for example.”
Implementation would not demand the reinvention of the wheel. It would, however, require a parent or guardian for verification. And this is the essence of the proposals: control by parents.
Which brings me to two further recommendations: require parental consent and mandate full parental access to minors’ social media accounts. The benefits of these should be obvious.
These provisions would be meaningless, however, without a genuine threat behind them. “In order for a law to be effective,” the authors note, “it has to carry with it the real threat of holding social media companies accountable for any violation.” This would mean “enabl[ing] parents to bring lawsuits on behalf of their children against tech companies for any violation of the law.”
Policy alone cannot ease the burden of Big Tech on the minds of America’s youth. But parents can’t do it alone, either. Together, they can offer relief.
Michael Toscano is executive director of the Institute for Family Studies.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
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