Concerns about the effect of new technology on the next generation are nothing new. Historically, enraged parents struggling with rebelling teens have often blamed the newest technology for young people’s overindulgences or even misbehavior. Video games, TV, magazines – and even novels – spooked too many parents into thinking that their children were being dangerously led astray by the new technology and entertainment of the day.
Rather than address the fundamental issues, some lawmakers prefer to blame social media for the modern challenges teenageres face. For example, California’s proposal AB 2408 incorrectly blames social media use by teens for real problems like failures in education. Rather than increase funding for mental health, make changes in schools, or help parents, the law instead foists blame on social media sites for offering services to teens which more often than not make their lives better.
Advocates of such a heavy-handed government approach lean heavily on existing worries about so-called “tech addiction” and lazy comparisons to well known harms. However, as history shows, the facts don’t support the hysteria. By passing this legislation, California would be condemning social media as a harmful and addictive technology with no appreciation for the many positive impacts these services can have on the lives of our youths.
Many parents may find themselves struggling with the growing and ever changing landscape of the current digital age and are concerned about the impact it may have on their children. Parents who seek out information about technology’s impacts are often met by scary headlines about potential harm.
Yet, evidence is lacking to justify government intervention into individual decisions by families and young people. While there is a growing body of research into the impact of social media on society and young people, just like social media itself, the field of research is young. Unfortunately, that means studies with scary headlines about negative impacts often obtain a disproportionate amount of influence, even when they’re disputed by other research.
Most young people use technology in positive ways, and have said in polls that social media helps them feel more confident, less lonely, and less depressed. Social media empowers young people to keep in touch with far-away family members, to learn about the world, and often find a sense of belonging. Teens use the communities they build on these platforms to organize protests on issues they care about, find supportive communities for unique interests or attributes, and feel less isolated. And surveys show that teens described social media platforms as “a key tool for connecting and maintaining relationships, being creative, and learning more about the world.”
But lawmakers in California are ignoring science and surveys to scapegoat helpful innovations for real societal challenges. Demonizing this technology with many purposes by labeling it as “addictive” or a “rabbit hole” also demonizes Peloton from suggesting new exercises or Goodreads for suggesting your next book. There are many positive engagements and passions such as music practice or math problems that parents would want an app to suggest their child continue on with, but the legislative proposal could consider these useful features “addictive.”
Parents in California should be wary of the precedent AB2408 sets lest the government make choices that are better left to parents. Social media’s impact on teenagers is understudied, and the research we do have paints a mixed picture. Government intervention that rests on incomplete science is clearly a dangerous overreach into family decisions better left to parents.
While parents and policymakers around the country rightly work to address concerns over teen mental health, we must recognize that blaming the wrong culprit for adolescent depression and anxiety will only let the problem to proliferate and worsen. While anti-tech advocates have little to lose when we distract ourselves by demonizing social media, parents and young people clearly do. Blaming social media is a shiny object that distracts from many of the issues facing today’s youth.
Far more research into social media’s impact on teens is needed before we can justify passing laws that could take away the many benefits of technology. There simply isn’t the evidence to suggest that AB2408 will help teenagers – and those saying “Kids these days” may ultimately find the kids are alright.