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Social media's age limits won't protect your kids

Social media's age limits won't protect your kids

But drawing a bright line on age is not a cure-all. Turning 13 (or for that matter, 16) does not make someone magically capable of handling the responsibilities of social media. Conversely, some children might have the maturity to navigate those platforms before they are 13.

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Last Updated : 17 April 2024, 04:07 IST
Last Updated : 17 April 2024, 04:07 IST
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By Lisa Jarvis

Momentum has been building to force social media companies to make their products safer for kids. But some of the solutions getting the most attention, while well intended, don’t address the underlying problem: the way these apps prey on developing brains.

A new report from the American Psychological Association highlights solutions that follow the science. That’s an important message for policymakers, parents and the companies themselves. Because if we want to see meaningful improvements, we need to focus on what’s actually causing the harm. That’s not necessarily the age of children on social media — the focus of many current policy efforts — but the products’ features, and how those features affect young minds.

As the APA report points out, the teen brain is still learning skills like impulse control, planning and prioritization. That makes them especially vulnerable to the infinite scroll or the pull of followers, “likes” and “shares.” And some are particularly susceptible to harmful content or bad actors.

The brief list of recommendations from the APA follows its social media advisory from last year, which demanded better science about how platforms like TikTok and Instagram affect kids’ brains. But some of the responses from policymakers and thought leaders were not always aligned with the science, says Mitch Prinstein, the APA’s chief science officer. Too much of the policy focus narrowed to a simple idea: age limits.

But drawing a bright line on age is not a cure-all. Turning 13 (or for that matter, 16) does not make someone magically capable of handling the responsibilities of social media. Conversely, some children might have the maturity to navigate those platforms before they are 13.

Moreover, the age limits we already have aren’t working. Tweens and teens are notoriously more tech-savvy than their parents. They excel at finding workarounds to age restrictions on apps and time limits on devices.

“There aren’t simple solutions to a complex problem,” says Dave Anderson, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. Social media isn’t going anywhere, and teens are going to use it. “We need to tailor our solutions to the risks [identified by] the science, rather than the risks amplified by the zeitgeist,” he says.

What could that look like? Prinstein offered a template for safer social media accounts that sounded pretty good to this parent of a tween. “I would love to enter my child’s age and have all of the guardrails automatically put into place,” he says. The default would be to protect a child’s data, turn off the endless scroll, disable likes, and bar certain types of sensitive content (things like cyberhate, explicit content or posts that encourage eating disorders). Those settings could be tweaked for more mature children. “It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask,” he adds.

Age limits alone are too blunt a solution. Yes, policy makers have always needed to make somewhat arbitrary choices about when kids are ready for certain responsibilities, whether that’s driving a car or accessing Snapchat. But some kids can benefit from access to social media. And yet solutions to its inherent faults have focused on banning access altogether or putting the onus on parents to muddle through.

As I’ve written before, parents play an essential role in their children’s transition into a healthy digital life. But even the most diligent parents can’t navigate this environment alone. We need social media companies to step up — not in the form of token changes, but with substantive modifications to their platforms that address what the science shows is a problem.

Another thing that social media companies need to do: Share their data on how kids are using their platforms. Progress towards real transparency feels frustratingly slow. Earlier this year, the Center for Open Science announced a partnership with Meta to facilitate certain researchers to access data that could help them better understand the relationship between social media and well-being. That’s a start, if a small one.

Companies could accelerate this research into the ways social media is used by and affecting kids. They could offer up data from experiments they have already run on how to engage teens with their products. Surely they know a lot about which features make their products even more problematic for teens. They should disclose them and fix them.

If we focus on the easiest fixes rather than the more nuanced solutions indicated by the science, nothing will change. Social media companies only seem interested in doing just enough to keep their CEO out of the Congressional hot seat. Lawmakers seem interested only in symbolic political victories. Parents need to keep advocating for real reform.

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