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Again, We Should Not Ban All Teens from Social Media

A growing number of conservatives are calling for Big Government censorship of social media speech platforms. Censorship proposals are to conservatives what price controls are to radical leftists: completely outlandish, unworkable, and usually unconstitutional fantasies of controlling things that are ultimately much harder to control than they realize. And the costs of even trying to impose and enforce such extremist controls are always enormous.

Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal ran a response I wrote to a proposal set forth by columnist Peggy Noonan in which she proposed banning everyone under 18 from all social-media sites (“We Can Protect Children and Keep the Internet Free,” Apr. 15). I expanded upon that letter in an essay here entitled, “Should All Kids Under 18 Be Banned from Social Media?” National Review also recently published an article penned by Christine Rosen in which she also proposes to “Ban Kids from Social Media.” And just this week, Zach Whiting of the Texas Public Policy Foundation published an essay on “Why Texas Should Ban Social Media for Minors.”

I’ll offer a few more thoughts here in addition to what I’ve already said elsewhere. First, here is my response to the Rosen essay. National Review gave me 250 words to respond to her proposal:

While admitting that “law is a blunt instrument for solving complicated social problems,” Christine Rosen (“Keep Them Offline,” June 27) nonetheless downplays the radicalness of her proposal to make all teenagers criminals for accessing the primary media platforms of their generation. She wants us to believe that allowing teens to use social media is the equivalent of letting them operate a vehicle, smoke tobacco, or drink alcohol. This is false equivalence. Being on a social-media site is not the same as operating two tons of steel and glass at speed or using mind-altering substances.

Teens certainly face challenges and risks in any new media environment, but to believe that complex social pathologies did not exist before the Internet is folly. Echoing the same “lost generation” claims made by past critics who panicked over comic books and video games, Rosen asks, “Can we afford to lose another generation of children?” and suggests that only sweeping nanny-state controls can save the day. This cycle is apparently endless: Those “lost generations” grow up fine, only to claim it’s the next generation that is doomed!

Rosen casually dismisses free-speech concerns associated with mass-media criminalization, saying that her plan “would not require censorship.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Rosen’s prohibitionist proposal would deny teens the many routine and mostly beneficial interactions they have with their peers online every day. While she belittles media literacy and other educational and empowerment-based solutions to online problems, those approaches continue to be a better response than the repressive regulatory regime she would have Big Government impose on society.

I have a few more things to say beyond these brief comments.

First, as I alluded to in my short response to Rosen, we’ve heard similar “lost generation” stories before. Rosen might as well be channeling the ghost of Dr. Fredric Wertham (author of Seduction of the Innocent), who in the 1950s declared comics books a public health menace and lobbied lawmakers to restrict teen access to them, insisting such comics were “the cause of a psychological mutilation of children.” The same sort of “lost generation” predictions were commonplace in countless anti-video game screeds of the 1990s. Critics were writing books with titles like Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill and referring to video games as “murder simulators,” Ironically, just as the video game panic was heating up, juvenile crime rates were plummeting. But that didn’t stop the pundits and policymakers from suggesting that an entire generation of so-called “vidiots” were headed for disaster. (See my 2019 short history: “Confessions of a ‘Vidiot’: 50 Years of Video Games & Moral Panics“).

It is consistently astonishing to me how, as I noted in 2012 essay, “We Always Sell the Next Generation Short.” There seems to be a never-ending cycle of generational mistrust. “There has probably never been a generation since the Paleolithic that did not deplore the fecklessness of the next and worship a golden memory of the past,” notes Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist.

For example, in 1948, the poet T. S. Eliot declared: “We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and that the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity.” We’ve heard parents (and policymakers) make similar claims about every generation since then.

What’s going on here? Why does this cycle of generational pessimism and mistrust persist? In a 1992 journal article, the late journalism professor Margaret A. Blanchard offered this explanation:

“[P]arents and grandparents who lead the efforts to cleanse today’s society seem to forget that they survived alleged attacks on their morals by different media when they were children. Each generation’s adults either lose faith in the ability of their young people to do the same or they become convinced that the dangers facing the new generation are much more substantial than the ones they faced as children.”

In a 2009 book on culture, my colleague Tyler Cowen also noted how, “Parents, who are entrusted with human lives of their own making, bring their dearest feelings, years of time, and many thousands of dollars to their childrearing efforts.” Unsurprisingly, therefore, “they will react with extreme vigor against forces that counteract such an important part of their life program.” This explains why “the very same individuals tend to adopt cultural optimism when they are young, and cultural pessimism once they have children,” Cowen says.

Building on Blanchard and Cowen’s observation, I have explained how the most simple explanation for this phenomenon is that many parents and cultural critics have passed through their “adventure window.” The willingness of humans to try new things and experiment with new forms of culture—our “adventure window”—fades rapidly after certain key points in life, as we gradually settle in our ways. As the English satirist Douglas Adams once humorously noted: “Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

There is no doubt social media can create or exacerbate certain social pathologies among youth. But pro-censorship conservatives wants to take the easy way out with a Big Government media ban for the ages.

Ultimately, it’s a solution that will not be effective. Raising children and mentoring youth is certainly the hardest task we face as adults because simple solutions rarely exist to complex human challenges–and the issues kids face are often particularly hard for many parents and adults to grapple with because we often fail to fully understand both the unique issues each generation might face, and we definitely fail to fully grasp the nature of each new medium that youth embrace.  Simplistic solution–even proposals for outright bans–will not work or solve serious problems.

An outright government ban on online platforms or digital devices is likely never going to happen due to First Amendment constraints, but even ignoring the jurisprudential barriers, bans won’t work for a reason that these conservatives never bother considering: Many parents will help their kids get access to those technologies and to evade restrictions on their use. Countless parents already do so in violation of COPPA rules, and not just because they worry that their kid won’t have access to what some other kids have. Rather, many parents (like me) both wanted to make sure I could more easily communicate with them, and also ensure that they could enjoy those technologies and use them to explore the world.

These conservatives might think some parents like me are monsters for allowing my (now grown) children to get on social media when they were teens. I wasn’t blind to the challenges, but recognized that sticking one’s head in the ground or hoping for divine intervention from the Nanny State was impractical and unwise. The hardest conversations I ever had with my kids were about the ugliness they sometimes experienced online, but those conversations were also countered by the many joys that I knew online interactions brought them. Shall I tell you about everything my son learned online before 13 about building model rockets or soapbox derby cars? Or the countless sites my daughter visited gathering ideas for her arts and crafts projects when, before the age of 13, she started hand-painting and selling jean jackets (eventually prompting her to pursue an art school degree)? Again, as I noted in my National Review response, Rosen’s prohibitionist proposal would deny teens these experiences and the countless other routine and entirely beneficial interactions that they have with their peers online every day.

There is simply no substitute for talking to your kids in the most open, understanding, and loving fashion possible. My #1 priority with my own children was not foreclosing all the new digital media platforms and devices at their disposal. That was going to be almost impossible. Other approaches are needed.

Yes, of course, the world can be an ugly place. I mean, have you ever watched the nightly news on television? It’s damn ugly. Shouldn’t we block youth access to it when scenes of war and violence are shown? Newspapers are full of ugliness, too. Should a kid be allowed to see the front page of the paper when it discusses or shows the aftermath of school shootings, acts of terrorism, or even just natural disasters? I could go on, but you get the point. And you could try to claim that somehow today’s social media environment is significantly worse for kids than the mass media of old, but you cannot prove it.

Of course you’ll have anecdotes, and many of them will again point to complex social pathologies. But I have entire shelves full of books on my office wall that made similar claims about the effects of books, the telephone, radio and television, comics, cable TV, every musical medium ever, video games, and advertising efforts across all these mediums. Hundreds upon hundreds of studies were done over the past half century about the effects of depictions of violence in movies, television, and video games. And endless court battles ensued.

In the end, nothing came out of it because the literature was inconclusive and frequently contradictory. After many years of panicking about youth and media violence, in 2020, the American Psychological Association issued a new statement slowly reversing course on misguided past statements about video games and acts of real-world violence. The APA’s old statement said that evidence “confirms [the] link between playing violent video games and aggression.”  But the APA has come around and now says that, “there is insufficient scientific evidence to support a causal link between violent video games and violent behavior.” More specifically, the APA now says: “Violence is a complex social problem that likely stems from many factors that warrant attention from researchers, policy makers and the public. Attributing violence to violent video gaming is not scientifically sound and draws attention away from other factors.”

This is exactly what we should expect to find true for youth and social media. Most of the serious scholars in the field already note studies and findings about youth and social media must be carefully evaluated and that many other factors need to be considered whenever evaluating claims about complex social phenomenon.

While Rosen belittles media literacy and other educational and empowerment-based solutions to online problems, those approaches continue to represent the best first-order response when compared to the repressive regulatory regime she would impose on society.

Finally, I want to just reiterate what I said in my brief National Review response about the enormous challenges associated with mass criminalization or speech platforms. Rosen seems to image that all the costs and controversies will lie on the supply-side of social media. Just call for a ban and then magically all kids disappear from social media and the big evil tech capitalists eat all the costs and hassles. Nonsense. It’s the demand-side of criminalization efforts where the most serious costs lie. What do you really think kids are going to do if Uncle Sam suddenly does ban everyone under 18 from going on a “social media site,” whatever that very broad term entails? This will become another sad chapter in the history of Big Government prohibitionist efforts that fail miserably, but not before declaring mass groups of people criminals–this time including everyone under 18–and then trying to throw the book at them when they seek to avoid those repressive controls. There are better ways to address these problems than with such extremist proposals.

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Additional Reading from Adam Thierer on Media & Content Regulation:

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