Pennlive: Op-Ed: Screens and social media: the new smoking for our children and youth

The social media revolution has given way to an uprising at the state and federal levels. Now, lawmakers have grappled with how to rein in these companies and the effects their products have on our children and youth.

A solution to this problem has been long overdue. Social media and devices are to children and youth today what cigarettes and smoking were to those who came of age from the 1970s to 2000s.

This correlation was recently examined by The Atlantic, which shed additional light on the detrimental impact of social media on our most vulnerable minds. The comparison between social media and smoking is striking. Just as cigarettes were once marketed as glamorous accessories, social media platforms present an idealized version of reality, fostering unrealistic expectations and fueling feelings of inadequacy among young users. The addictive nature of social media further compounds the problem, drawing children into a cycle of validation-seeking behavior that can have profound consequences on their self-esteem and mental health.

Like cigarettes, which are known to cause physical harm, screen time, and especially time spent on social media, has been linked to a host of mental health issues among young people. Studies have shown a correlation between excessive social media use and depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. The constant pressure to create the perfect online persona takes a toll on children’s mental well-being, leading to increased stress and feelings of isolation. At the same time, the prevalence of cyberbullying on social media platforms poses a significant threat to children’s safety.

However, even at the peak of tobacco’s popularity, most parents weren’t likely to hand their kids a cigarette. Why then do many parents allow young children to have unrestricted, possibly unfiltered, access to screens, devices, and social media platforms?

In his article for The Atlantic, social psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt attributes parental acceptance to several key factors, including optimism and excitement about new technologies; idolization of tech-company founders such as Apple’s Steve Jobs and Google’s Sergey Brin; not wanting our kids to be left out of the latest tech trend; and the ease in which a child could be calmed down just by simply handing them a touchscreen device.

“We had no idea what we were doing,” Haidt wrote.

It’s been nearly 17 years since the first iPhone was released to the world, and we have a better idea of what we’ve done.

And our children are begging us to do something. You need to look no further than Bucks County to see this cry for help. Three Bucks County high school students, seeing the negative impacts that screens and social media have had on their generation, were tapped by Rep. Brian Munroe (D-Bucks) to draft legislation — House Bill 2017 — that would mandate social media platforms to confirm users’ ages and procure parental consent for children aged 16 or younger before creating an account.

Additionally, it grants parents the authority to monitor their children’s privacy settings and impose usage restrictions by setting time limits on account usage. A similar proposal, Senate Bill 22, was introduced by Sens. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York) and Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia) in that chamber but did not include chat monitoring provisions as in the House proposal.

The chat monitoring provision in HB 2017 resulted in considerable pushback from the ACLU and the tech lobby, putting any consideration on ice for the time being. And despite gaining unanimous approval from a state Senate committee last year, SB 22 has not yet been scheduled for a final vote by Republican leadership.

For those of us who remember the tobacco lawsuits of the 1990s, this might sound familiar: large, powerful corporations wielding their capital and influence on lawmakers to avoid responsibility and culpability.

However, the day came when tobacco corporations had to accept their role in a national health crisis, and so too will social media companies. Our society cannot afford to ignore the lessons we’ve learned from the youth smoking crisis and now the youth mental health crisis. It’s time for Pennsylvania to protect our children from the dangers of screens and social media and ensure they can thrive in a healthy and supportive online environment.

Angela Liddle is president and CEO of the Pa Family Support Alliance, which created the Family Digital Wellness initiative to help parents and families raise strong, healthy children in a digital age.

From Pennlive, April 26, 2024

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