Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, talks with the Deseret News in Salt Lake City on Thursday. Stewart believes he has a solution to the mental health crisis among adolescents: Make it illegal for social media platforms to provide access to children under 16. (Ryan Sun, Deseret News)
Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Tweens and teens spend as much as nine hours a day scrolling through social media, gaming, online shopping, video chatting and texting on their cellphones.
And an increasing amount of evidence suggests all that screen time is taking a toll on their mental health.
"The statistics are clear we've got a generation of young people that are the most distressed, anxious, depressed and tragically suicidal than any generation in our history," said Rep. Chris Stewart, who was recently named co-chairman of the bipartisan Mental Health Caucus in Congress.
The rise in anxiety and depression, he says, can be almost directly correlated to when Facebook bought Instagram in 2012 and began marketing initially to girls and then boys as young as 9. The Chinese app TikTok, he said, was designed as "emotional heroin" for young people.
"We just think we've got to do something," he said.
Stewart, a Republican, believes he has a solution to the mental health crisis among adolescents: Make it illegal for social media platforms to provide access to children under 16. He intends to introduce legislation that would make social media companies responsible for age verification of their users.
The law wouldn't displace parents' decisions about their children's social media use but help them avoid something harmful, he said.
"The government is involved with regulating when my children can drink, when they can smoke, when they can drive," Stewart said. "We think society has a responsibility to protect young people and government should help in protecting them."
Since 2000, the federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act has required websites and online services to get parental consent before collecting data of children under 13. But it is rarely enforced. Stewart's bill would basically raise the age to 16.
Stewart said he expects social media companies will "hate this," but that he's willing to take their arrows "if we can do some good here."
"They know if they can get someone addicted to social media at 9, they've got them for the rest of their lives," he said.
Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, didn't have a position on Stewart's yet-to-be-filed legislation Monday, but pointed to steps it has taken to protect young people, including age-appropriate default settings, tools to encourage teens to spend time away from Instagram, and continuing to bring age verification to the platform.
"We have the same goals as policymakers," according to Meta. "We have long advocated for clear industry standards in areas like age verification, and developing experiences that are age-appropriate."
NetChoice, a tech industry group that includes Meta, Google, TikTok and Twitter, says education for both parents and children is the answer, not the "heavy-handed" government regulation Stewart is proposing.
Such laws are not only unenforceable but violate the First Amendment, said Carl Szabo, NetChoice vice president and general counsel.
Also, he said there's a reason Congress set the age at 13 in the federal law. There's an emotional and social differential between a 13-year-old and 15-year-old, who typically can drive a car, attend high school and is becoming less dependent on parents.
"This is well-intentioned. I think parenting in the 21st century is incredibly challenging," Szabo said of Stewart's proposal. "Now is there something that could be done? One-hundred percent."
We can't just turn away from it. We can't just ignore it. We can't just pat them on the back and say 'hey, you'll feel better' and ignore it.
–Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah
Szabo pointed to Florida and Indiana lawmakers considering legislation to require social media education in schools. The materials, he said, would be presented not only to kids but to their parents.
"Let's see how that goes first," he said.
The better approach, Szabo said, is to not try to replace parents as California has done with its Age-Appropriate Design Code Act.
Modeled off standards in the United Kingdom, the California law requires the highest privacy settings to be turned on by default for minors. It also says that online services targeting kids under 18 must assess the risk of harm to those users that could come from potentially harmful messages or exploitation. It's set to take effect in July 2024.
"California has stepped in between parents and their teenagers," Szabo said.
NetChoice sued California over the law, arguing it violates the First Amendment. "There's a First Amendment right for teenagers. There's a First Amendment right for the internet," he said.
Stewart said his legislation has Democratic co-sponsors and his initial talks with the White House have been encouraging.
In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about big Big Tech "abuses" last week, President Joe Biden said Democrats and Republicans can find common ground on protection of privacy, competition and children.
"Millions of young people are struggling with bullying, violence, trauma and mental health. We must hold social-media companies accountable for the experiment they are running on our children for profit," the president wrote.
A Pew Research Center survey found 95% of 13- to 17-year-olds have access to a smartphone.
Between 2009 and 2017, the number of eighth graders using social media every day rose from 46% to 78%, and the time high school students spent online doubled. Common Sense Media estimates that children ages 8 to 12 spent five and a half hours a day on screens in 2021, and teens ages 13 to 18 spent nearly nine hours a day, according to research compiled by the Institute for Family Studies and the Wheatley Institute at Brigham Young University.
A study by the two institutes found that teens who devote more than eight hours a day to screen time were about twice as likely to be depressed as their peers who were on screens less often than that.
In the past decade, anxiety, depression and teen suicide have surged, especially among girls, since the mass adoption of smartphones around 2010, according to University of Virginia sociologist Brad Wilcox, a fellow of the Institute for Family Studies and the American Enterprise Institute, and Riley Peterson, an undergraduate in religion and sociology at Baylor University.
Depression more than doubled, from 12% in 2010 to 26% today for teen girls. Emergency room visits for self-inflicted injuries almost doubled over the same period, again for teen girls. And teen suicide among girls has risen to a 40-year high, Wilcox and Riley wrote in a recent Deseret News piece.
"We can't just turn away from it. We can't just ignore it. We can't just pat them on the back and say 'hey, you'll feel better' and ignore it," Stewart said.
Stewart's bill would give states the authority to file a civil action on behalf of its residents if a social media platform violates the regulations. It also gives parents a right to sue on behalf of their children. It allows the Federal Trade Commission to impose fines for violations.
Seattle public schools recently sued the companies behind Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube, claiming the platforms are largely responsible for a major decline in young people's mental health.
Szabo said there's a simple reason that the social-emotional state of not only teenagers but all Americans is at an all-time low. "It happens to do with being locked down in our homes for two years," he said, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic. "That seems to be hand-waved away."
The only lifeline kids had was through technology, he said.
"It seems silly to lay the blame at the feet of technology even though it seems to be an easy answer," Szabo said. "Society goes through this every time we have a new technology."
Most recent Utah congressional delegation stories
Ex-NFL players Burgess Owens, Colin Allred celebrate Damar Hamlin on House floor
How Mike Lee supporters stacked audience at debate with Evan McMullin
Does Republicans' struggle to elect a speaker signal dysfunction to come?
Utah congressional delegationPoliticsUtahScience
Dennis Romboy is an editor and reporter for the Deseret News. He has covered a variety of beats over the years, including state and local government, social issues and courts. A Utah native, Romboy earned a degree in journalism from the University of Utah. He enjoys cycling, snowboarding and running.
More stories you may be interested in
Justice Department searched Biden home after 'voluntary, proactive offer' by lawyers
Should retired first responders' spouses get free mental health resources?
How a Utah lawmaker wants to lower copay costs for chronically ill
Due to the various dangers and effects of social media, it is necessary that parents restrict their children from using social media until at least 13 years old. At that age, they may introduce those apps to their children so the process becomes more gradual and easier to monitor.Should parents limit teenagers use of social media? ›
The main concern of many parents is the content that is being consumed. The Internet is home to countless pornography sites, inappropriate videos and images, dating websites and apps, and social media platforms where children and teens can be exposed to harmful content as well as potential online predators.How do social media platforms affect the social skills of your child children? ›
Social media affects behavior negatively by depriving kids of important social cues they would usually learn through in-person communication. This can cause them to be more callous, anxious, and insecure. Social media affects social skills by replacing some of kids' direct contact with their peers.Is social media beneficial or harmful? ›
Since it's a relatively new technology, there's little research to establish the long-term consequences, good or bad, of social media use. However, multiple studies have found a strong link between heavy social media and an increased risk for depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-harm, and even suicidal thoughts.Why children should not be given access to social media? ›
Despite all the positive aspects of social media, there are still an abundance of risk factors, such as privacy endangerment, exploitation and online harassment. All these negatives make social platforms a dangerous place for children under 13 years old.Why shouldn't kids have access to social media? ›
Dangers of social media
Cyberbullying. Online predators. Sharing too much information. False marketing.
No amount of monitoring can protect kids from everything. And kids can often figure out how to get around parental controls. So it's best to encourage your child to be a responsible Internet user by being a good role model and talking to your kids about online safety.Why should parents limit the exposure of their children to media? ›
Media use also can expose kids to cyberbullying, which has been linked to depression and suicide. And media use can distract kids from important tasks, interfere with homework time, and hurt school performance. It can limit quality family time and make kids feel lonely or isolated.Should parents let kids use the internet unsupervised? ›
While it has always been strongly advised that children should be supervised when using the internet, this advice is rarely taken. Parents do not view the internet as a place that could cause any immediate danger to their child as the places they visit on the internet is done in the comfort of their own home.What are the negative effects of social media on children? ›
Social media harms
However, social media use can also negatively affect teens, distracting them, disrupting their sleep, and exposing them to bullying, rumor spreading, unrealistic views of other people's lives and peer pressure. The risks might be related to how much social media teens use.
Social media use may expose teens to peer pressure, cyberbullying, and increased mental health risk. But, social media can also connect isolated teens and help them find supportive networks. Parents can set limitations and communicate openly with teens about healthy social media use.What are the advantages and disadvantages of social media? ›
There are a lot of social media advantages and disadvantages. Some people find them helpful in keeping in touch with friends, while others view them as a distraction from their work or studies. Social media can be addictive and can lead to feelings of loneliness or isolation if used excessively.Why kids under 12 should not have social media? ›
Children's brains are still developing and many of them do not know the future effects of being forced to grow up. As well as affecting children's outside image, social media also affects children's mental health.Should I let my 13 year old have social media? ›
Dr Kristy also agrees that 13 would be the absolute minimum, however 'It's difficult to prescribe a precise age limit as kids need to have social and emotional skills to cope with the demands of social media. For some kids, this is 13 years and for other kids it may be 15 years.Why parents should not be permitted to post pictures of their children who are below 15 years old on social media? ›
Sharing Puts Your Child at Risk for Digital Kidnapping
Digital kidnapping is a type of identity theft. It occurs when someone takes photos of a child from social media and repurposes them with new names and identities, often claiming the child as their own.