Social-media moral panic caused by infantilizing teens
SACRAMENTO – America is in the throes of its latest moral panic, with liberal academics and social conservatives united in warning about an addiction crisis that is threatening the social fabric of the nation. They’re not warning about the waves of fentanyl overdoses, but to teen addiction to social-media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.
These critics claim these new technologies are exactly like narcotics, gambling or alcohol – in that they rewire adolescent brains and lead to depression, self-destructive behaviors, sleep disorders and mood swings. It’s all backed by reams of research and sounds rather alarming. Of course, many social critics want the government to provide solutions.
A headline from The Hill is as chilling as the underlying crisis: “Democrats and Republicans agree: Kids are addicted to social media and government can help.” (You know the scariest words in the English language: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”) We should all be skeptical that the same government that can’t balance a budget can revamp the dominant form of modern communications and boost young people’s self-esteem.
It’s hard to overstate how overwrought the doomsayers have become. “It took a half century for the first American Surgeon General Report to establish the link between tobacco and lung cancer,” wrote The Conversation’s Beth Daley in a column that likewise implies these tech platforms should be regulated like tobacco because of research linking social media overuse to bad mental-health outcomes.
Complaining that teens have too much social media and too little religion, the conservative Heritage Foundation argued social media “seems to drive them further into themselves or online communities at the expense of their mental health. Social media companies like TikTok must be held accountable.” Despite its unclear call for accountability, the article at least focused on parental strategies rather than regulation.
Moral panics – a widespread fear that some evil force is threatening society – are nothing new. Although I grew up playing Pong rather than Mortal Kombat, I remember when Congress responded in the early 2000s to the fear that violent videogames led to mass shootings by disaffected young men. “According to the most comprehensive statistical analysis yet conducted, violent video games increase aggressive behavior as much as lead exposure decreases children’s IQ scores,” said then-Sen. Hillary Clinton. It led to a pointless videogame rating system.
Most subsequent research has shown that such games – no surprise here – had no connection to violent incidents and anti-social behaviors. My typical response to these concerns has been to suggest that parents take a more active role in their kids’ lives. Anyone who thinks legislators are clever enough to craft meaningful regulations controlling technologies they don’t understand has never paid close attention to the legislative process.
But I recently read a more compelling rebuttal to all the upset about social media. Atlantic writer Derek Thompson posted charts showing the percentage of 12th graders who had a driver’s license, ever tried alcohol, who have gone out on dates and worked for pay during the school year. In the 1970s and 1980s, those numbers were extraordinarily high – with 85 percent to 90 percent driving and dating, more than 80 percent trying alcohol and around 70 percent or more working. (No one obviously is endorsing underage drinking, but the charts reflect the propensity of teens to experiment with life.)
In 2010 and beyond, those numbers plummeted by 20 percentage points or more. Another chart showed the amount of leisure time middle-schoolers spent alone has soared. “We’re sort of running an experiment on 21st (century) American teens, that’s like: How much physical-world social activity is necessary for well being? So the researchers remove parties, driving around, youth sports, most summer jobs,” Thompson tweeted.
Our society has infantilized its youth out of, perhaps, our generation’s excessive fear of safety. We’ve even seen a recent “free-range kids” movement emerge after parents have been arrested or harassed by child protective services for allowing their kids to play alone in parks or walk to school on their own. We shouldn’t be shocked by adolescent addiction to social media given that we’ve collectively stopped allowing kids to participate in the social activities that were normal when I grew up in the 1970s. Kids need something to do.
I’m not trying to idealize my youth, but as a teen I rode my bike and drove all over (and couldn’t keep in touch with my parents because we had no cellphones). I worked in a store and went on dates, attended parties and roamed free during summer break at the Jersey Shore. Sure, I got into some trouble, but kids of my generation had something to do other than sit around on our computers (which didn’t exist).
Instead of asking the government to regulate social media to improve adolescent mental health, why don’t we look at why we’ve made it so hard for them to participate in real life?