By Amy Kennedy
My husband Patrick and I thought that by waiting to give our kids phones, they would develop healthier habits to offset the potential for overuse. This was not the case. Ever since he pressed that power button, a viewer would have found it hard to believe that his hands ever existed without a phone.
Any time not filled with classes, clubs, or meals is a chance to reach their device. Break time is phone time. And when they have to get away from their phone, the light attracts them like butterflies to a flame.
As a former public school teacher and mother of five, I know how far parents will go to protect their children. Circle apps, parental controls, no phones after bedtime, and media breaks for meals are all implemented, to no avail. I have seen and felt the despair of realizing that, despite your best efforts, outside influences have the power to play a major role in the trajectory of your child’s life.
As parents, we have so much to manage – the weight of which can sometimes be incomprehensible. Nevertheless, we persevere in doing our best to create the safest possible environments for our children. Through advocacy, activism and community engagement, so many of us are seeking solutions that we know can make a difference.
But the uproar presented by social media is uncharted territory.
In 2018, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) shockingly reported that two-thirds of teens are drawn to screens for nine hours a day, not to mention the time spent on school work on the computer. And that’s most certainly an underestimate in 2022, as recent studies report. screen time increased as dramatically as 17% during the pandemic.
In the novel Glow Kidspsychologist Nicholas Kardaras has argued that age-inappropriate screen technology has profoundly affected the brains of an entire generation, noting that a young brain on tech looks like brain on drugs.
Social media is making kids addicted in ways we never thought possible. It’s more than just an annoyance for parents and teachers who struggle to keep their attention. Several studies now confirm shrunken or lost tissue in neural areas are responsible for organization, impulse control and the development of empathy. The long-term consequences of deficiencies in these areas are very real.
Add to that the abundance of harmful content on social media, and you have a powerful new vice that thrives in silence, often behind closed doors, at all hours of the day or night.
Consider Instagram alone includes 90,000 pro-eating disorder accounts, with a reach of 20 million followers. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Social media use by minors has also been consistently linked to increased suicidality, and suicide is now the second leading cause of death among young people.
This double whammy of addiction potential and exposure to harmful content can threaten even the most secure parent/child bond. Yet our decision makers failed to prioritize the issue.
Next revealing senatorial hearings regarding the dangerous practices of Facebook and Instagram, on February 26, 2022, Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal and Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn presented the Child Online Safety Act (KOSA). The bill would establish a duty of care to protect minors from adverse mental health effects and sex trafficking, among other safeguards.
To do this, KOSA requires companies to submit to independent external audits, allow researchers access to the platform’s data assets, and create substantial youth and parental controls for a safer digital environment.
Last month, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation KOSA approved as well as the Children and Adolescents Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA 2.0). While this approval represents a monumental step forward in protecting our young people online, it is now up to Congress to pass these crucial bills.
Some states are mobilizing to take matters into their own hands. In California, the state legislature recently introduced the Social Media Platform Duty To Children Act (AB 2408), which prohibits social platforms from selling the personal data of a child user; engage child users with addictive products, services or notifications and create addictive social media features. Under the bill’s provisions, parents could sue social media companies if their child develops an addiction.
In this way, the bill would provide a much-needed slingshot for all Davids — parents and caregivers grappling with the towering algorithmic muscle of social media Goliaths like TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and SnapChat.
Isn’t it ironic that one of AB 2408’s few naysayers, Tyler Smith, is in partnership with MetaFacebook’s parent company, which derives an estimate $230 million annually from pro-eating disorder accounts? Apart from Smith’s comment, the bill received very little media attention and legislative traction.
I hope that one day we will find a way to find a healthy balance between social media use and the well-being of our children. But we are not there yet. Legislation holding social media companies to account will be key to finding our way.
As we have learned with other public health issues in the past (e.g. lead, asbestos, smoking, vaping), people who profit from the misfortune of others rarely stop because they is the right thing to do. Parents cannot bear the weight of an entire industry’s inaction.
Amy Kennedy and her husband, former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy, launched The Kennedy Forum, a mental health advocacy organization. In 2020, Amy ran for Congress in the 2nd Congressional District. She sits on the National Advisory Board of JED Foundationon the board of directors of Parity.organd is a consultant for Mental Health America. The couple live in Atlantic County.
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