“I, personally, based on the data I’ve seen, believe that 13 is too early … It’s a time where it’s really important for us to be thoughtful about what’s going into how they think about their own self-worth and their relationships and the skewed and often distorted environment of social media often does a disservice to many of those children.”US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy
What’s going on?
Recently, the US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, made some waves when he suggested that 13 is “too early” to join social media. He’s worried that social media can really mess with kids’ self-worth, relationships, and mental health. In the past few weeks, there’s been a lot of chatter and several movements, from both sides of the aisle, within US Congress around putting more age limits and safety regulations on social media.
What does the law say now?
So why is the age of 13 the magic number for social media anyway? Well, it turns out there’s a law called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which was passed in 1998. COPPA requires websites and apps that collect data from children under 13 to obtain parental consent. To avoid that hassle, many social media companies just set 13 as the minimum age for users. However, this legal restriction related to data collection does not address the larger issue of the potential harm that social media can cause to young users.
Even if social media companies are following the letter of the law as it relates to data collection, it does not necessarily mean that they are developing apps that are appropriate for children as young as 13. In fact, some social media apps, such as Facebook, have higher minimum ages in other countries because those have different laws regarding youth and social media.
You also may have heard recently about “section 230” and the Communications Decency Act (CDA) – these are laws passed in 1996 that provide legal protection to tech companies for content posted by third-party users.
Yes, COPPA and the CDA impact child exploitation online. However, these laws both have far reaching implications for many issues including user privacy. Taking a public health approach to ending child trafficking means we should value the big picture — and advocates that consider only one population can push for changes that have unintended consequences for others.
How does social media affect children?
At Love146, we support survivors of child trafficking and exploitation – and we know from experience that social media can play a direct role in grooming, recruitment, and exploitation. Beyond our experience, many studies have linked social media use to all kinds of mental health issues, like anxiety, depression, and body image concerns.
Of course, it’s not all bad news. Online networks can provide a sense of community for kids who might otherwise be marginalized or isolated, and that can reduce their vulnerability and increase their resilience to many problems, including exploitation. We need to think about the potential benefits of online networks, as well as the risks. But we need to make sure that kids can access this kind of connection safely and without significant risk of harm.
Let’s talk safety standards.
Some have compared social media to smoking, alcohol, and driving – all things that are regulated to protect kids. As Murthy says, “The vast majority of products that we buy need some sort of safety standard in order to be sold. That is not true of social media in general and that is something we have to fix.”
While many folks are suggesting that parents need to band together to change norms and support children – and that is needed for now – in the big picture, we need to approach technology companies differently altogether. As US Surgeon General Murthy puts it, “We have some of the best designers and product developers in the world who have designed the products to be sure people are maximizing the amount of time they spend on these platforms. And if we tell a child: ‘Use a force of your will power to control how much time you spend’ – you’re pitting a child against the world’s greatest product designers, and that’s just not a fair fight. That’s why our kids need help.”