Why it’s time to protect children from social media

Children are mouldable.

When we are young, our parents teach us good behaviours. We are taught how to be good, like saying “thank you”, peeing in the the toilet and not playing loud music late at night. We also pick up some bad behaviours (often through observation) that stick with us for life. For most of us, these are minor transgressions; for a few these are serious and lead to major issues in society, like child abuse, addiction and domestic violence.

This is all to say that the behaviours we learn in childhood stay with us for rest of our lives.

I’m 34. I first got dial up internet when I was 14. I remember getting home from school and spending hours on MSN talking with friends, hogging the phone line, much to my family’s irritation. I didn’t get a smart phone until I was 19. I’m one of the last people who got through their entire childhood without one. But I remember the intense social pull and anxiety that came with being connected.

Kids now spend their whole childhood using smartphone, and are getting connected to social media and exposed to targeted ads from an early age. Unfettered access to notifications, ads, messages and posts from friends is normal behaviour. It is taught. These specific behaviours will carry through their adult lives.

The negative consequences on adults and society are now becoming clearer. Measurable and serious things like increased rates of drug addiction and suicide, strongly linked to the pressures of being ‘always on’ and the social anxiety of comparing oneself to global expectations of beauty and success. And less measurable things like the feeling that community bonds are weaker, people are less open in casual interactions, less tolerant of opposing viewpoints, and reports from employers that younger generations are less creative.

If excessive online connectivity is the cause, what will our society look and feel when Gen-Z is grey and old, when there is no collective memory left in society of the time before we were all connected?

It doesn’t seem good. It feels like all these problems will only get worse.

Wouldn’t it be better if people had healthier habits and relationships online, so we can take the best of what social media can offer society whilst mitigating the worst?

I think we can do it. And I don’t think it’s the hardest problem societies are trying to solve right now. All it takes in putting some protections in place to safeguard children’s online activity, so that we provide support to parents in regulating their kids access and remove big tech to be the sole policy makers on these issues.

Society already accepts rules with traditional media, so it seems completely plausible for the public to support this across the political spectrum. Surely even the most libertarian of us wouldn’t propose we start allowing X-rated movie releases to be advertised in kids magazines? So if we can agree on that, let’s think about what those rules might look like.

If we get those rules right, then we set good habits for life for our future generations.

The rules need to address at least three areas:

Who needs to do this? Politicians. Why would they do it? Because it will win votes? How would they know it’ll win votes: because voters ask for it. I think there’s an opportunity for a handful of brave politicians to spearhead this initiative and put their name to something that will go down in history as a good thing to have done.

What do you think? Write me a comment or clap if you agree.

Here are some rebuttals to common critiques:

When people say: “Social media and online advertising is just the latest iteration of companies being able to advertise.” I say: then let’s put in place some of regulations we have for traditional media and made some reasonable additions given we can all agree that online advertising is at least as powerful than traditional media.

When people say: “These rule would be pointless, kids will find a way around them.” Some will, yes, just like some kids watch horror movies at the age of 11. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have any rules at all. Most will abide by the rules most of the time, and that will be enough to have a positive impact on society.

When people say: “It sounds like you want us to be just like China” (China introduced some of these measures recently). No I don’t. We already have these protections in place for traditional media, eg no fast food ads during kids TV shows, or no adult only content before the watershed. Just because China has moved first on adding more rules around online media consumption, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. By that logic, no one should do anything that China did first, like using paper or gunpowder.

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LSE alum and British national, interested in the politics and sociology of technology. Founding Member and Chief Product & Technology Officer at Yumpingo.

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George Wetz

George Wetz

LSE alum and British national, interested in the politics and sociology of technology. Founding Member and Chief Product & Technology Officer at Yumpingo.

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