Published July 12, 2022
Alexis Spence started using social media when she was eleven and soon developed a social-media addiction, which led in turn to her struggles with anorexia, self-harm, and thoughts of suicide over several years. Just last month a lawsuit was filed against Meta on her behalf, alleging that Instagram’s artificial-intelligence engine steered the then fifth-grader into an echo chamber of content glorifying anorexia and self-cutting, and systematically fostered her addiction to using the app. Her story is not unique and in fact represents just one tragic example of social-media harms to children that are too numerous to count. These harms have rightly led some commentators to call for banning minors entirely from social media.
Parents in prior generations mainly had to worry about threats to their children from outside the home, like school bullies or the lures of tobacco, alcohol, or other substances. But now the biggest threats are inside our homes, entering through screens. The rise of smartphones and the unending access to social-media platforms they afford are a primary source of danger to children today.
The nature of the threat from Big Tech platforms is twofold. First, platforms knowingly distribute content that is harmful to minors and do little or nothing to remove it. Second, the platforms themselves are designed to be extremely addictive, with negative effects on children’s and teens’ mental health and development, particularly on teenage girls.
The breadth and depth of harmful content circulating on today’s social-media platforms is truly shocking. Parents may not be aware that TikTok and Instagram have both been shown to promote dangerous eating-disorder content for girls, contributing to a wave of eating-disorder cases across the country. Or that TikTok and its algorithms send teens down rabbit holes of sexual and drug-related content.
For example, one minor’s “account was bombarded with marketing for strip clubs, promoted paid pornography and videos pushing the user toward OnlyFans.com, a platform favored by sex traffickers, with explicit sex and prostitution come-ons,” as reported by the New York Post. Yet another minor was lured into a TikTok space called “KinkTok,” featuring torture devices, chains, and whips.
A recent Forbes review of hundreds of recent TikTok livestreams also reveals “how viewers regularly use the comments to urge young girls to perform acts that appear to toe the line of child pornography — rewarding those who oblige with TikTok gifts, which can be redeemed for money, or off-platform payments to Venmo, PayPal,” and the like. An assistant dean at Harvard Law told Forbes that it’s “‘the digital equivalent of going down the street to a strip club filled with 15-year-olds.’”
The cyberbullying of children is another peril of social-media platforms. For example, middle-school students are creating anonymous Instagram accounts called “spilling the tea” accounts for gossip and cyberbullying. Bullies now essentially follow kids home through online platforms. Even more nefarious are attempts by criminals such as human traffickers to use social media to find and lure victims. On any app where children are interacting with their peers — TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, SnapChat, Twitter, Roblox, and Fortnite — one can assume traffickers are on it too.
The bottom line is that today’s teens don’t need to go looking for danger: It will find them on social media. Parents should be aware that simply by creating a social-media account, kids are at risk of having harmful content and contacts from bad actors pouring into their phones.
Beyond the horrifying and harmful types of content that platforms are distributing, the platforms themselves are designed to be highly addictive, which is causing a myriad of negative health consequences in children and teens.
Social-media companies profit off of their users’ attention. Users “pay” for social media’s “free” services with their time, attention, and data, which the companies then sell to digital advertisers. The more time one spends on their platform, the more ads they can sell. And the younger they can get someone hooked, the longer they can profit off that user over his or her lifetime. Make no mistake: For the sake of their bottom line, Big Tech companies are actively trying to addict our children.
The effects of this addiction are becoming more and more evident. Research has shown that right around 2013, when Facebook bought Instagram, there was an explosion in the rates of depression and anxiety among teens. Between 2011 and 2018, the rates of teen depression increased by more than 60 percent, with the largest increase among young girls. The rates of self-harm, suicides, and suicide attempts also increased.
Correlation is not causation, but there are few plausible alternative explanations for the massive, sudden, multinational deterioration of teen mental health during the period right after the advent of social media.
Two other dangers of particular concern to parents are online pornography and trans influencers.
Online pornography today is not just more pervasive, it’s also more extreme and perverse than it was even five years ago. Social-media apps are often the first entry point to pornographic sites, and they themselves distribute pornographic content on their platforms. Again, teens don’t need to go looking for it; porn finds them on social media.
Lastly, despite the near-silence on the topic from the mainstream media, trans influencers on social media are in large part driving the disturbing transgender movement among teens. (And online pornography today increasingly includes transgender — known as “sissy” — porn.) Social-media sites peddle misinformation on the drugs and surgeries of the trans world, and influencers coach teens on how to lie to doctors and their parents in order to get these drugs or surgeries.
While Congress should at the very least reform the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998, as I have written previously (they could also pass further measures to protect kids online), for the time being, it’s on us as parents to protect our children from the threats of Big Tech. Even children who don’t have social media still feel its effects, as it changes the entire atmosphere of a school or organization when there is social-media use by even a few children.
But parents need not despair or feel powerless. There are many steps you can take immediately to protect your children online. The Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) just released its Technology Guide for Parents to educate and empower parents with the necessary knowledge, practical tools, and tech alternatives to arm their families against today’s digital dangers.
Parents should have frequent conversations with their children about technology, particularly the type of content that they may come across, especially online pornography, before the age of ten. It is also important to put boundaries in place around technology that your family uses, for example: no devices or screens in children’s bedrooms, especially not at night; no phones at the dinner table; allowing your children and teens to access the Internet only from a family computer or tablet used in a common space where they can be seen (and where only the parents know the password and have to log kids on); and having your family practice a tech-free Saturday or Sunday to create time and space to be together. It is also prudent for parents to use parental controls and other tools, including parental-control software programs and apps for purchase at minimal cost (examples are listed in the EPPC’s guide) and parental-control settings to set up with Internet service providers, streaming services, search engines, and apps.
Parents should remember that there is no real need to allow your kids to have social-media accounts at all, though the pressure to do so can be intense. Given the reality of online life, the EPPC’s guide is designed to provide practical steps toward protecting our children.
Clare Morell is a Policy Analyst at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where she works on EPPC’s Big Tech Project. Prior to joining EPPC, Ms. Morell worked in both the White House Counsel’s Office and the Department of Justice, as well as in the private and non-profit sectors.
Clare Morell is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where she directs EPPC’s Technology and Human Flourishing Project. Prior to joining EPPC, Ms. Morell worked in both the White House Counsel’s Office and the Department of Justice, as well as in the private and non-profit sectors.