Should All Kids Under 18 Be Banned from Social Media?

by on April 18, 2022 · 0 comments

This weekend, The Wall Street Journal ran my short letter to the editor entitled, “We Can Protect Children and Keep the Internet Free.” My letter was a response to columnist Peggy Noonan’s April 9 oped, “Can Anyone Tame Big Tech?” in which she proposed banning everyone under 18 from all social-media sites. She specifically singled out TikTok, Youtube, and Instagram and argued “You’re not allowed to drink at 14 or drive at 12; you can’t vote at 15. Isn’t there a public interest here?”

I briefly explained why Noonan’s proposal is neither practical nor sensible, noting how it:

would turn every kid into an instant criminal for seeking access to information and culture on the dominant medium of their generation. I wonder how she would have felt about adults proposing to ban all kids from listening to TV or radio during her youth.

Let’s work to empower parents to help them guide their children’s digital experiences. Better online-safety and media-literacy efforts can prepare kids for a hyperconnected future. We can find workable solutions that wouldn’t usher in unprecedented government control of speech.

Let me elaborate just a bit because this was the focus of much of my writing a decade ago, including my book, Parental Controls & Online Child Protection: A Survey of Tools & Methods, which spanned several editions. Online child safety is a matter I take seriously and the concerns that Noonan raised in her oped have been heard repeatedly since the earliest days of the Internet. Regulatory efforts were immediately tried. They focused on restricting underage access to objectionable online content (as well as video games), but were immediately challenged and struck down as unconstitutionally overbroad restrictions on free speech and a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

But practically speaking, most of these efforts were never going to work anyway. There was almost no way to bottle up all the content flowing in the modern information ecosystem without highly repressive regulation, and it was going to be nearly impossible to keep kids off the Internet altogether when it was the dominant communications and entertainment medium of their generation. The first instinct of every moral panic wave–from the waltz to comic books to rock or rap music to video games–has often been to take the easy way out by proposing sweeping bans on all access by kids to the content or platforms of their generation. It never works.

Nor should it. There is a huge amount of entirely beneficial speech, content, and communications that kids would be denied by such sweeping bans. That would make such ban highly counter-productive. But, again, usually such efforts just were not practically enforceable because kids are often better at the cat-and-mouse game than adults give them credit for. Moreover, imposing age limitations of speech or content are far more difficult than age-related bans on specific tangible products, like tobacco or other dangerous physical products.

Acknowledging these realities, most sensible people quickly move on from extreme proposals like flat bans of all kids using the popular media platforms and systems of the day. Over the past half century in the U.S., this has led to a flowering of more decentralized governance approach to kids and media that I have referred to as the “3E approach.” That stands for empowerment (of parents), education (of youth), and enforcement (of existing laws). The 3E approach includes a variety of mechanisms and approaches, including: self-regulatory codes, private content rating systems, a wide variety of different parental control technologies, and much more.

Over the past two decades, many multistakeholder initiatives and blue-ribbon commissions were created to address online safety issues in a holistic fashion. I summarized their conclusions in my 2009 report, “Five Online Safety Task Forces Agree: Education, Empowerment & Self-Regulation Are the Answer.” The crucial takeaway from all these task forces and commissions is that no silver-bullet solutions exist to hard problems. Child safety demands a vigilant but adaptive approach, rooted in a variety of best practices, educational approaches, and technological empowerment solutions to address various safety concerns. Digital literacy is particularly crucial to building wiser, more resilient kids and adults, who can work together to find constructive approaches to hard problems.

Importantly, our task here is never done. This is an ongoing and evolving process. Issues like underage access to pornography or violent content have been with us for a very long time and will never be completely “solved.” We must constantly work to improve existing online safety mechanisms while also devising new solutions for our rapidly evolving information ecosystem. Nothing should be off the table except the one solution that Noonan suggested in her essay. Just proposing outright bans on kids on social media or any other new media platform (VR will be next) is an unworkable and illogical response that we should dismiss fairly quickly. No matter how well-intentioned such proposals may be, moral panic-induced prohibitions on kids and media ultimately are not going to help them learn to live better, safer, and more enriching lives in the new media ecosystems of today or the future. We can do better.


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