George Boardman: It’s time to ban children from social media
Brett McFadden got to the crux of the issue when commenting on the recent social media-inspired assault on the bathroom facilities of western Nevada County’s two major high schools.
“I think we have to talk about the irresponsibility of TikTok and other social media outlets in allowing this to go on,” said the superintendent of the Nevada Joint Union High School District. “The question I ask is where is the accountability on the part of these entities?”
McFadden was discussing a viral challenge last month called “devious licks,” in which students stole items or vandalized school bathrooms. That challenge gained popularity on TikTok, a Chinese-owned social media outlet that is popular with teenagers and pre-teens.
In our case, the challenge resulted in thousands of dollars of damage to bathrooms and the disruption of school operations. The damage has to be repaired with tax dollars that were intended for more productive activities.
Educators have since warned of a potential new challenge that dares students to slap teachers. That prompted the head of the nation’s largest teachers union to urge TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others to take steps to halt the dissemination and spread of dangerous viral challenges and misinformation.
“We’re facing growing violence fueled by corporations with no oversight and no accountability to the communities they harm,” wrote Becky Pringle, president of the union.
The answer for McFadden and Pringle is that there is no accountability, and nobody in authority is willing to hold social media responsible for the reckless behavior they permit and enable.
As usually happens when the news media focuses its attention on the latest misdeeds of social media, all parties in the spotlight proclaim innocence and a desire to promote the common good. Then they go back to what they usually do.
Exhibit A these days is Facebook, where a whistleblower leaked to the public a trove of sensitive company information that details how Facebook’s platforms have negative effects on teen mental health, its algorithm fosters discord, and that drug cartels and human traffickers use its services openly.
Much of the focus was on Facebook’s Instagram service, which is particularly popular with teenage girls. The company’s own research, which goes back several years, shows that Instagram is directly involved in an increase in eating disorders, mental-health issues, and suicidal thoughts among teenage girls.
At recent congressional hearings, Facebook trotted out an array of mid-level managers to address the issues. Facebook’s global head of safety repeatedly challenged senators’ assertions of harm, saying the company’s products “actually add value and enrich teens’ lives.”
“At Facebook we take the privacy, safety and well-being of all those who use our platform very seriously, especially the youngest people on our services,” said Antigone Davis.
The company has since announced a “halt” to several projects aimed at young users, including one referred to as Instragram Kids. But as Facebook’s own internal documents show, this is probably just a pause in the war for the clicks and minds of the young.
Internal documents show that Facebook is concerned about its ability to attract young users who will become adult users. “Global teen penetration on FB is low, and acquisition appears to be slowing down,” a document from earlier this year states.
Facebook’s teen audience has fallen by 19% over the last two years, another document noted, and would likely fall by an additional 45% by 2023. A Pew Research Center survey from 2020 found that among 9-to-11-year-olds, 30% said they used TikTok. Just 11% said they used Instragram and 6% said Facebook.
Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube and others are battling for a share of the young audience with little or no oversight of how they attract these impressionable children.
It is interesting to note that China is one of the few countries that is actually doing something about it. For starters, it is cracking down on online gaming, calling it “spiritual opium,” and limiting teen play to three hours a week at specific times on weekends.
TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, ByteDance, that has several platforms that appeal to the young. The Chinese government has put a couple of them out of business, and the country’s version of TikTok can be accessed for no more that 40 minutes a day by users under 14.
In the United States, there’s talk about updating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, a 1998 law governing web sites that gather data on children. Written in the early days of the internet age, the law has been criticized as inadequate for the current social-media environment.
One bipartisan bill in Congress would expand the law’s restrictions on the online collection of personal data about children under 13, including limitations on the tracking of teens ages 13 to 15. Collecting data on the people who use these free services is how social media sites sell their lucrative targeted ads, but that doesn’t address the issue of what children see on these sites.
It should be the responsibility of parents to be aware of the sites their children visit and what they are exposed to. While many take this responsibility seriously, there are too many parents who prefer to offload the job of actual parenting to social media, online gaming, and television.
In many households, the good intentions of parents are thwarted because their children are more tech savvy than they are. Several senators allege Facebook is encouraging teens’ use of secondary Instagram accounts, or “Finstas,” with F standing for fake, that can be hidden from parents or others.
Like the purveyors of tobacco and alcohol, social media sites will do whatever it takes to capture the intended audience. Instead of attempting to regulate their content and get ensnarled in the bramble bush of free speech and individual liberty, social media sites should simply be banned from everybody under 18.
Critics of my proposal will say you can’t ban it completely, just like you can’t completely ban tobacco and alcohol. But I’m willing to bet that if the likes of Facebook and YouTube were threatened with the death penalty, they would figure out a way to keep social media out of the hands of all but the most sophisticated hackers.
If we give my proposal a try, the youth of America might make more real friends to replace the posers they meet on social media, discover the magic of real conversation, get more exercise, and might even start reading. That would be a win for the children, their parents and educators.
George Boardman lives in Nevada City. His column is published biweekly on Tuesdays by The Union. Write him at email@example.com
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