Social Media Restrictions: Overreaction or Overdue?

cape cod social media marketingby Brittany McSorley

Some social media news has caught our eye here at KDC recently. On January 24, the Florida House of Representatives passed legislation that, if signed into law, would majorly restrict social media use in the state. According to Politico, “The social media legislation, FL HB1 (24R), would require many platforms to prohibit anyone younger than 16 from creating an account and require them to use a third party for age verification services. At the same time, it calls on social media companies to terminate accounts for users in the state under 16.”

 

Representative Fiona McFarland likened the effects of social media to those of dangerous drugs: “These dopamine hits [from social media] are so addictive, it’s like a digital fentanyl. And even the most plugged-in parent or attuned teen has a hard time shutting the door against these addictive features.”

 

Also on January 24, New York City became the first metropolis to designate social media as an “environmental toxin.” Axios reported that “…the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene issued an advisory identifying unrestricted access to and use of social media as a public health hazard. The department urged parents and caregivers to delay giving children access to a smartphone or social media until at least age 14.”

 

These movements feel like the beginning of a social media reckoning that’s long been in the works. Young people are using social media all the time — literally. An October 2023 Gallup poll clocked the average at 4.8 hours a day. Considering how many hours teens spend in school every day, this doesn’t paint a pretty picture. Every spare moment of the average young person’s life is now spent online. And study after study has found correlations between social media use and negative effects like sleep disruption, depression, and even suicidal thoughts.

 

You don’t need to be a data scientist to observe the distinctions between kids now and the generations who grew up without social media and smartphones, or even those who were introduced to these phenomena after they’d enjoyed an analog childhood. Young people’s brains seem wired differently; they appear physically addicted to their devices to a degree that their elders (usually) are not. They cycle between multiple apps and struggle to focus, their attention spans having adapted to a world that is constantly bombarding them with short-form, flashy content on an endless scroll. There is always something else to look at, so they can’t look at anything for long.

 

Max Fisher’s book, The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World, explores not only how addicted we are to social media, but how social media companies design their products to capture as much of our attention as possible, often making light of, and sometimes outright ignoring, the dangers the platforms pose. Fisher writes, “Remember that the number of seconds in your day never changes. The amount of social media content competing for those seconds, however, doubles every year or so, depending on how you measure it.” The ever-increasing amount of content is bumping up against the same 24 hours we have each day, creating hordes of frantic consumers who legitimately struggle to tear their eyes from their screens. Platforms are competing for our attention, and young people who have never known life without a smartphone are particularly vulnerable to the questionable techniques big companies use to keep them engaged.

 

While it seems clear that something needs to change, legislation restricting social media use for minors is a thorny, complex issue. Politico notes, “Florida’s proposal notably would not apply to websites that are predominantly used for email, messaging or texts, along with streaming services, news, sports or entertainment sites, and online shopping or gaming.” You may be thinking, what does that leave? How would this ban work? And can a state even take a decision like this out of the hands of parents?  The answers are unclear. But the dangers of social media have been plain to see for some time, and not just for minors. We all know a few grown-ups who could use a few hours away from Facebook. We’ll have to wait and see. I suggest we leave our phones inside and let our feet touch some grass while we do.