by DIANE GRABER
The iPhone just turned 15. In human years, he’s a mere teenager, and just like a teenager, he completely turned life as we knew it on its head.
In the decade and a half since the arrival of the iPhone, and all the other connected devices that preceded it by just a few years, an entire generation has entered adulthood. These age-connected guinea pigs experienced a totally different adolescence from all the generations that preceded them. They socialized online, where their conversations were asynchronous and devoid of social cues. Everything they posted has been saved for posterity, for everyone to see. Algorithms determined what they consumed and their social status was quantified by the number of likes, friends and followers. Many felt compelled to be “on” 24/7.
What impact has this “new adolescence” had on the well-being of today’s young adults? And, more importantly, what about the current generation of kids enjoying new apps with even stealthier algorithms (looking at you TikTok)? Well, that’s the million dollar question.
Currently, there is a mental health crisis among young Americans that many place squarely on the shoulders of technology in general, and social media in particular. This is a fairly easy correlation to make. According to CDC, the share of American high school students who “felt persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” increased from 26% to 44% between 2009 and 2019. This increase perfectly parallels a similar increase in their screen time and use of social media.
Researchers have been looking for a direct correlation between depression and social media use for years, with mixed results.
But blaming social media for teen depression is reductive and somewhat unfair. Researchers are looking for a direct correlation between depression and social media use for years, with mixed results. Dr. Jeff Hancock, behavioral psychologist at Stanford University who conducted a meta-analysis of 226 of these studies, recently Told The New York Times“There have been hundreds of studies, almost all showing very small effects.
However, the concern remains. This concern was raised a few notches last year when Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked internal documents that showed Facebook knew its products, particularly Instagram, could cause harm, including negatively impacting the mental health of teens.
But that, too, is not the full story. According to Facebook (now Meta), of eleven of the twelve wellness issues they researched, teenage girls who said they struggled with difficult issues too said Instagram made them feel better rather than worse.
This is where the problem lies. Viewing social media as harmful ignores its usefulness. It also ignores the fact that every teenager is different and how they use social media varies widely, as does the agency they wield over it.
For example, at one end of the spectrum is the eighteen-year-old gunman accused of killing eighteen people in a Buffalo supermarket. It was would have “radicalized by consuming white supremacist content online” as he was lonely and bored during the pandemic, moving from outdoor forums and guns to white supremacist sites that inspired his rampage. At the other end of the spectrum, you’ll find TikTok influencer Abbey Richards whose viral misinformation videos educate viewers (mostly children) about this important topic, work that adults have largely dropped the ball on.
Yet one youngster hurt by social media is one too many. And it is quite clear that some changes must be made to safeguard the well-being of future generations.
More than 100 bills have been introduced by state legislatures in the past year alone aimed at regulating tech companies. For example, in my state, California, Assembly Bill 2408, age-appropriate design code law, would make social media companies liable for damages of up to $250,000 per violation for using features that they know can make children “addicted” (my quotes). Many other states are working to pass similar legislation. But, according to PoliticsLast year “only three bills became law.”
Why not teach kids the literacy of their time (“digital literacy”) and arm them with agency to protect themselves from potential harm from social media?
Meanwhile, young people are moving away from the mega apps targeted by many of these bills. And who knows where the next generation will flock? Plus, kids are notoriously adept at evading restrictions on the things they love, like social media. Concrete example, million children lying about their age in order to sign up for apps for which they are too young, thereby circumventing the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a law designed to protect their personal information.
As we wait for new bills to become laws that may or may not effectively protect children, or for social media platforms (private companies) to voluntarily change business practices that make them profitable for their shareholders, another whole generation approaching adulthood. We cannot afford to wait.
There is a better, more logical, effective and immediate solution to keep children safe online. Education.
Every American college student is taught traditional “literacy” (how to read and write), but what it typically overlooks is where they actually “read” (online), How? ‘Or’ What they “write” (they post), and the nature platforms where they do both (public spaces where everything is permanent, where algorithms decide what they see, and persuasive technologies aim to keep them “hooked”). Why not teach kids the literacy of their time (“digital literacy”) and arm them with agency to protect themselves from potential harm from social media?
Online misinformation, misinformation, clickbait, deepfakes, infinite scrolling, disturbing and graphic content, cyberbullying and many more are not going away any time soon and there is no law that will protect children from all of these things. But young people with digital literacy skills will be less likely to believe information designed to mislead, fall down rabbit holes created by algorithms, be tricked by clickbait or seduced by persuasive technology, and they will know what to do when faced with online cruelty.
So rather than wringing our hands over all the perceived societal ills caused by social media, or funding another study that finds the link between technology use and well-being is as strong as eat potatoes, let’s consider a solution that could really work, and that will make children our active allies in their own protection.
Diana Graber is the founder of Cyber Civics & Cyberwise, author of Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Children Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology (Harper Collins Leadership, ’19.)