Protecting Teens from Big Tech: Five Policy Ideas for States

Photo by Avi Richards on Unsplash

Published with the Institute for Family Studies

by Clare Morell, Adam Candeub, Jean Twenge, W. Bradford Wilcox

Around 2012, something began to go wrong in the lives of teens. Depression, self-harm, suicide attempts, and suicide all increased sharply among U.S. adolescents between 2011 and 2019, with similar trends worldwide. The increase occurred at the same time social media use moved from optional to virtually mandatory among teens, making social media a prime suspect for the sudden rise in youth mental health issues.

In addition, excessive social media use is strongly linked to mental health issues among individuals. For example, teens who spend five or more hours a day on social media are twice as likely to be depressed as those who do not use social media Several random assignment experiments demonstrate that social media use is a cause, not just a correlation, of poor mental health. One possible mechanism is sleep deprivation. Teens who are heavy users of social media sleep about an hour less a night, and sleep deprivation is a significant risk factor for depression among adolescents. Between 2011 and 2016, as social media became popular, sleep deprivation among U.S. teens increased by 17 percent.

Thus, there is ample evidence that social media use is harmful to the mental health of teens. However, social media use is virtually unregulated among minors. This failure stems mainly from U.S. Supreme Court decisions, at the infancy of the world wide web, that limited Congress’s power to regulate the Internet to protect children. In addition, Congress has been unable to pass enforceable laws to protect kids online, and the laws it has managed to pass have mostly backfired.

While waiting for Congress to pass better legislation to protect children online—most importantly by updating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998—states can take action now to protect children online and empower parents. This memo outlines five legislative strategies states can take toward these ends.

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Clare Morell is a policy analyst at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where she works on the Technology and Human Flourishing Project

Adam Candeub is a Professor of Law at Michigan State University, where he directs its IP, Information and Communication Law Program, and Senior Fellow at the Center for Renewing America. 

Jean M. Twenge is a Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University and is the author of iGen

Brad Wilcox is the Future of Freedom fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.

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