When my Texas-loving 16-year-old niece came for a visit in the fall, she left the state disappointed with only one thing. She and her mom had stopped by a tattoo parlor to commemorate their trip and learned that in Texas, tattoo artists are prohibited from tattooing people younger than 18, even with a consenting adult present.
That was surprising to me yet also reassuring.
It was evidence that there are still some legal guardrails governing the activities of minors, especially those that would result in a permanent and possibly regrettable change to one’s body.
Age restrictions have been top of mind in a lot of discussions lately, from gun purchases and drag shows to voting and gender-transition procedures.
There is good reason for that: Brain development is ongoing during the teenage years and not even complete by age 18, especially when it comes to impulse control.
And it’s never a bad idea to reconsider how recent events and changing cultural circumstances, coupled with our increased understanding of how our brains function, might warrant an update to existing laws or practices.
But lots of other activities that minors engage in with impunity should be part of our national dialogue regarding age limitations — activities such as unfettered use of social media.
Why do we treat social-media use differently?
That is the question asked this week by writer Christine Rosen in a powerful essay titled “Ban kids from social media,” and it’s one that I’ve been pondering for a long time.
It takes only a moment to recognize how social media is frequently the source of, or at least an accomplice in, much of our societal, not to mention personal, turmoil. (Just ask the writers of the Washington Post, whose online dust-up this week resulted in the suspension of one and the firing of another.)
But adults can, at least theoretically, control their online behavior. At the very least, they have the capacity to curtail it when it is becoming problematic.
Children, on the other hand, cannot be expected to do so, nor can they mitigate the damage their social-media use does to their mental and emotional health.
Study after study finds that this damage is significant.
A 2019 study published in the Journal of the Americand Medical Association found that adolescents who spend more than 3 hours per day on social media may be at heightened risk for mental health problems.
A more recent study by Cambridge University found that increased time spent on social media decreases life satisfaction among both male and female teenagers, and further, “that sensitivity to social media use might be linked to developmental changes, possibly changes in the structure of the brain, or to puberty.”
Facebook’s own internal research has indicated that Instagram makes body-image issues worse for one in three teenage girls, and that young Instagram users feel addicted to the app and unable to control the impulse to use it.
We know that online forums and applications are frequently used by teenagers to threaten, intimidate and bully and that kids are sadly accustomed to such online behavior.
We know that mass shooters use such forums not only to announce their horrific plans, but also as a tool in hatching and planning their massacres.
The Department of Homeland Security issued a warning Tuesday that online praise for the Uvalde and Buffalo shooters has intensified, unsurprisingly increasing concerns over possible copycat attacks.
There is no doubt that adolescent dependency on social media dramatically increased during the pandemic, and it’s fair to believe that having a virtual means of connecting was of some value during a time when physical connections were limited.
But it’s also completely obtuse to ignore the role that social media is playing in the staggering mental-health crisis our youth are now facing — a crisis that was mounting (as is evidenced by a bounty of research) long before the pandemic began.
We have stood by and allowed it.
I tend to agree with my colleague Nicole Russell that parental involvement and control should be the primary means of protecting our kids from harms they don’t yet understand or appreciate.
But as Rosen points out, social media is no longer a private problem. It’s a societal one.
Since we are ready to address many of society’s ills by legislating age restrictions, isn’t it time to at least discuss greater age limits for social-media use, the ill that seems to drive all the others?
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