by DIANE GRABER
The iPhone just turned 15. In human years it’s a mere teenager, and much like a teenager, it has completely disrupted life as we knew it.
In the decade and a half since the arrival of the iPhone, and all the other connected devices that proceeded it by just a few years, a whole generation has entered adulthood. These guinea pigs of the connected age experienced an adolescence completely unlike any generation before them. They socialized online, where their conversations were asynchronous and devoid of social cues. Everything they posted got saved for posterity, for everyone to see. Algorithms determined what they consumed, and their social status was quantified by likes, friend, and follower counts. Many felt pressured to be “on” 24/7.
What impact did this “new adolescence” have upon the wellbeing of today’s young adults? And, more importantly, what about the current crop 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 amongst America’s youth which many place squarely on the shoulders of technology in general, and social media in particular. It’s an easy enough correlation to make. According to the CDC, the share of American high school students who “experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” rose from 26 to 44 percent between 2009 and 2019. This increase neatly parallels a similar rise in their screen time and social media use.
Researchers have been hunting 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 have been hunting for a direct correlation between depression and social media use for years, with mixed results. Dr. Jeff Hancock, a behavioral psychologist at Stanford University who has conducted a meta-analysis of 226 such studies, recently told The New York Times, “There’s been absolutely hundreds of studies, almost all showing pretty small effects.
Still, concern remains. This concern got ratcheted up a few notches last year when Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked internal documents that showed Facebook knew its products, specifically Instagram, could cause harm, including negatively impacting the mental health of teens.
But, this too, is not the complete story. According to Facebook (now Meta), on eleven of twelve well-being issues they researched, teenage girls who said they struggled with difficult issues also said that Instagram made them feel better rather than worse.
Therein lies the rub. Viewing social media as harmful overlooks how helpful it can be too. It also ignores the fact that every teen is different and how and what they use social media for varies significantly – as does the agency they exert over it.
For example, at one extreme end of the spectrum there’s the eighteen-year-old gunman accused of killing eighteen people at a Buffalo supermarket. He was reportedly “radicalized by consuming white-supremist content online” while alone and bored during the pandemic, gravitating from outdoor and gun forums to the white-supremacist sites that inspired his rampage. At the other end of the spectrum, you’ll find TikTok influencer Abbey Richards whose viral videos about misinformation educate viewers (mostly kids) about this important topic, a job adults have largely dropped the ball on.
Still, one youth harmed by social media is one too many. And it’s abundantly clear that some changes must be made to safeguard the wellbeing of future generations.
Over 100 bills have been introduced by state legislatures in just the past year aimed at regulating tech companies. For example, in my state, California, Assembly Bill 2408, the Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, would make social media companies liable for damages of up to $250,000 per violation for using features they know can cause children to become “addicted” (my quotes). Many other states are working to pass similar legislation. But, according to Politico, in the last year “only three bills have become law.”
Why not teach kids the literacy of their day (“digital literacy”) and arm them with the agency to keep themselves safe from the potential harms of social media?
Meanwhile, young people are moving away from the mega apps many of these bills are aimed at. And who knows where the next generation will flock to? Besides, kids are notoriously expert at evading restrictions on the things they love, like social media. Case in point, millions of children lie about their age in order to sign up for apps they are too young for, thereby circumventing COPPA (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), a law designed to protect their personal information.
As we await new bills to become laws that may or may not effectively protect kids, or for social media platforms (private companies) to voluntarily change the business practices that make them profitable to their shareholders, another entire generation is approaching adulthood. We can’t afford to wait.
There’s a better, more logical, effective, and immediate solution to keeping kids safe online. Education.
Every US student is taught traditional “literacy” (how to read and write), but what this usually overlooks is where they actually “read” (online), how they “write” (they post), and the nature of the platforms where they do both (public spaces where everything is permanent, algorithms decide what they see, and persuasive technologies aim at keeping them “hooked”). Why not teach kids the literacy of their day (“digital literacy”) and arm them with the agency to keep themselves safe from the potential harms of social media?
Online misinformation, disinformation, clickbait, deepfakes, infinite scrolling, disturbing and graphic content, cyberbullying, and more are not going away any time soon and no law will protect kids from all these things. But youth armed with digital literacy skills will be less likely to believe information designed to mislead, fall into rabbit holes created by algorithms, be tricked by clickbait, or seduced by persuasive technology, and they will know what to do when they encounter cruelty online.
So rather than wringing our hands over all the perceived societal ills caused by social media, or funding yet another study that finds the link between technology use and wellbeing is as strong as eating potatoes, let’s consider a solution that might actually work, and that will make kids 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 Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology (Harper Collins Leadership,’19.)