Why laws alone won’t protect kids online

11 September 2023

There are growing concerns about the effect of social media on young people’s mental health. Do we need more than new laws to fix the problem?

Up to 95% of teens aged 13-17 report using a social media platform. More than a third say they use them “almost constantly”. Our teens are hooked on their feeds.

Given the growing evidence linking social media addiction to a decline in teenagers’ mental health, this is worrying. The US Surgeon General has warned of the role of social media in normalizing of suicidal tendencies, eating disorders and low self-esteem, going as far as to say that children under the age of 14 should not be on social media at all.

Even social media companies, aware their business model is threatened, have begun trumpeting measures to limit the addictiveness of their products.

But measures proposed by social media companies, such as giving teens more control over the content they see, won’t be enough. To truly reduce risk to children, we must address the underlying technology.

Rethinking social media incentives

That is not as simple as turning off autoplay for teens, as YouTube has, or silencing notifications for children after bedtime, like TikTok. Social media is advertiser-funded, incentivizing firms to maximize the time spent on the service, and keep people coming back.

Each like button, push notification and recommendation is designed to exploit addictive tendencies we all share. These services create an itch for us to scratch by checking for updates or whether our latest post has received more likes. The unpredictability of these rewards actually makes them more compelling, something psychologists call ‘intermittent reinforcement’.

In short, we cannot entrust social media companies with the mental and social well-being of our children when those companies are also trying to make their services more addictive in order to become or remain profitable.

Making laws - can this help?

Will legal enforcement encourage social media providers to be more responsible? And can legal restrictions prevent young people from using these services in the first place?

Legislators in US-state Utah recently passed laws banning under-18s from having a social media account without parental permission, and giving parents access to their children’s posts. The state has also implemented a social media curfew for under-18s between 10:30pm and 6:30am.

But it isn’t clear how these measures can be enforced. If parents give consent and don’t monitor their children’s activity on social media, then those children are still exposed to virtually the same risks as children in states without such laws.

While other violations - such as a social media company granting an account to an underage user without parental consent - are likely to be met with a lawsuit or fine, this may not be enough to bring multi-billion dollar tech firms into line.

Legal and regulatory oversight may indeed have a role to play - but as a safety measure it’s clearly insufficient.

Rethinking technology

We need a complete rethink of the social media model and that starts with giving users ownership of their data. That would change the economic model for social media companies, forcing them to find ways to make money besides selling our attention.

At Project Liberty we want to create a personal data driven economy that would underpin truly decentralized social networks, similar to the way email works. Users would control their data, deciding which services they share it with and how it is used.

Social media sites feed our data into algorithms to determine what to show us next and keep us scrolling. A decentralized system would allow the user to determine which data the algorithm can access. If we do not want our feeds to recommend content based on past behavior, then we can simply deny access.

When users own their data, social media companies will not be able to sell advertisers targeted access to, say, teenage girls who like music and live in New York State. They will have to rely on generic ads or consider other business models, such as subscriptions.

As social media users, we have more power than we think. We can demand change and switch to better alternatives that already exist.

We’re helping to raise public awareness, bring together experts to devise solutions, and increase pressure on politicians and business leaders. With your support, we can achieve that goal sooner and ensure we keep our children safe.

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