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Some say limiting adolescents' access to social media will protect their mental health from harmful content and users, but experts argue there are less restrictive options available.
Teens are increasingly lonely, depressed, anxious and suicidal. Louisiana Sen. Patrick McMath, who takes online safety personally as the father of four young children, has added social media restrictions to state law he thinks will help.
His legislation requires anyone under 16 to get their parents’ permission before opening a social media account, among other safeguards. It was signed into law by Gov. John Bel Edwards late last month and will go into effect in July 2024.
“We’re facing a serious mental health crisis in this country, and this bill is an attempt to address a small piece of that by giving parents a little bit more tools in the tool box to navigate these complex algorithms,” McMath, a Covington Republican, said at an April legislative hearing.
The law will also prevent adults from messaging children who aren’t their friends on an app, and social media companies cannot collect extensive personal information about minors. They can still show them ads but not based on data and personal information usually collected from adults.
It’s part of a nationwide wave to address an online world where critics say users—including children—have had few guardrails.
A separate law went into effect this year in Louisiana that requires pornography sites to verify the age of users. A host of other states have proposed similar laws to crack down on children’s unfettered access to the web.
Utah, for example, takes its law further. It requires parental consent for those under 18, banning addictive design features and barring use of social media by minors between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m.
McMath’s original bill had a similar provision, up to parents’ discretion, that was ultimately removed.
The signing of McMath’s proposal reinforces a May advisory from U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy that urged policy makers and social media companies to act.
“We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis, and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis—one that we must urgently address,” Dr. Murthy said.
There’s a consensus something must be done to address teen mental health. What that something is, though, is more divisive.
Research isn’t definitive that social media is the driving cause of mounting mental health struggles among children, and some think parental consent laws like Louisiana’s aren’t the right way to address online harms.
Irene Ly, a lawyer focused on children’s online privacy, said that while the data privacy and direct messaging provisions of Louisiana’s law are a step in the right direction, the parental consent part could be harmful.
These measures “coupled with the parental consent approach is what we’re still worrying about, and we think it has the potential to do more harm than good,” said Ly, a policy counsel for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit aimed at children’s media safety.
“Once the parent gives the kid consent to go online … they’re still gonna have the same powerful design features that they’re exposed to,” Ly said, referencing the algorithmic tools social media companies use to make their sites addictive.
McMath said his bill would keep more kids out of the way of harmful content.
“Implementing age verification and restrictions is not about restricting freedom of expression or hindering digital literacy,” McMath said at the April hearing. “It is about taking proactive measures to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our children in a digital landscape that is constantly evolving.”
McMath emphasized that “age restrictions are not a novel concept,” pointing to restrictions on movies, video games and other media. “It is time we extend this protection to the online world as well,” he said.
Under the new law, social media companies will either have to apply accommodations for those under 16 to all accounts or verify the ages of all Louisiana users. Age verification can create some “very worrisome” privacy concerns, Ly said, some of which civil liberty groups raised when porn sites started asking Louisianans for their government IDs to verify they were adults to comply with state law.
Though there may eventually be a trustworthy, privacy-protected way to verify users’ identities, “I don’t think we’re quite at that point of trying to use it on such a big scale,” Ly said.
“Even if a company is saying, ‘We’re gonna take your own ID or use, you know, like a facial scan … and then delete that information right after,’ understandably, a consumer may still feel a little nervous about whether or not that’s true,” Ly said.
McMath expressed confidence the technology will catch up with age verification needs.
“As technology improves, we can develop even more effective age verification methods that help protect our children without infringing upon their rights,” he said at the April hearing.
The other piece of the debate is pinpointing the extent to which social media is responsible for youth mental health problems.
While some evidence shows social media plays a role in rising mental health problems among teens in the past decade, it’s often more about the teen and how they’re using the social media platforms, said Jacqueline Nesi, a psychologist at Brown University who studies the impact of social media on adolescents’ mental health.
“It’s likely that mental health concerns and that trend we’re seeing is driven by a lot of different factors,” Nesi said. “… Social media may be one of them, but I think it’s unlikely that’s the only cause.”
For some teens, Nesi said, “social media can really interfere” with activities that are important for their mental health such as in-person socializing, going outside, sleeping and getting exercise.
Social media can also expose children and teens to harmful content ranging from posts promoting self harm or eating disorders to hate speech and bullying, Nesi said.
“There’s a lot of content out there that … we know is not good for young people to be looking at, and that’s certainly a risk as well,” Nesi said.
While social media can have harmful effects on young people, there’s also research that shows it has benefits, Nesi said, such as allowing young people to explore their identities and interests.
“One of the biggest (benefits) is just opportunities for social connection, and that’s especially true for youth who may be marginalized in different ways in their offline lives, so including LGBTQ youth,” Nesi said.
Though the parental consent and age verification aspects of Louisiana’s law are controversial, steps to ensure data privacy and preventing kids from receiving messages from adults they don’t know are steps forward, Ly said.
“We are a fan of design features that are gonna be putting more of that burden on the platform or making it the default essentially so that the parent doesn’t have to be the one that’s trying to go through and figure out like, ‘How can I change the setting so that adults can’t be like interacting with my child?’” Ly said.
Wanting tech companies to take on the onus of protecting users, instead of burdening parents, is a commonality emerging from the debate on social media policy.
“While parents … play a vital role in monitoring their children’s online activities, they cannot be expected to shoulder this responsibility alone,” said McMath, who framed his law as a step toward putting that responsibility on social media companies.
Nesi agrees the burden of online safety shouldn’t fall only on parents and that “tech companies themselves can take steps to make the platform safer and healthier for their younger users.” But for parents seeking good practices for their teens online, Nesi has a few recommendations.
Parents should communicate openly with their children about social media by “asking a lot of questions” and sharing the risks and benefits, she said. They can also set reasonable limits on the time teens spend on social media and the content they’re viewing.
It’s also important for parents to model healthy habits with their own social media use.
“We know that parents’ own relationships with social media are really important for teens and how they end up using social media,” she said.