write in National exam, cultural critic Christine Rosen recently proposed a total ban on social media for everyone under 16. One can imagine all sorts of problems with this idea, ranging from problems of application to what it would be like to live in a country where almost all teenagers start screaming at the same time. But let’s take a step back from the immediate issues and effects, and ask ourselves what the ethics of such a ban would be.
Rosen cites a number of other things we don’t let teenagers and young children do: drive, vote, drink and smoke (at least in public) and join the military. There are a variety of reasons specific to each of these prohibitions, but basically they all come down to the same thing: immature judgment, specifically a virtue called prudence.
That’s not to say there aren’t cautious 10-year-olds. But the classic virtue of prudence involves a mature measure of reasoned self-discipline. Our intuitive sense that young people, especially adolescents, are on average less able to discipline their powerful desires is confirmed by neurological studies of the brains of adolescents and adults observed in the laboratory while the subjects took decisions.
In adolescents, the part of the brain called the amygdala, which governs impulsive “fight or flight” behavior, tends to take precedence over the frontal cortex, where deliberation and conscious decision-making tend to occur. If teenagers tend to be physically unable to make certain decisions without harming themselves or others, it’s a good idea to take that choice away from them until they’re older.
Rosen cites an internal Instagram study that showed a third of teenage girls discovered using the platform made them feel worse, but they couldn’t stop it. She points out that the 18-year-old who killed 21 people, mostly children, at a primary school in Uvalde last month used to bully others on social media.
These examples highlight the fact that a mixture of hormone-stimulated teenagers and electronic media expressly designed to promote “engagement” by pressing superbly sourced and user-customized mental buttons, leads to behavior that exploits teenagers, displaces time that could be used for in-person interaction, work, or sleep, and in the extreme encourages callousness, bullying, cruelty, and abuse.
And there doesn’t seem to be a way to design the bad features while leaving the good features. If only angels used social media, there would be no downside, but since angels communicate through what amounts to telepathy, that wouldn’t make sense either. (Angels don’t have money either.) As much as the social media giants don’t like to admit it, they’re essentially in the same business as gambling casinos: encouraging something that, at best, is a fun hobby, but at worst can be an enslaving and life-destroying habit.
Gambling is another thing we don’t usually let teenagers do, for the same reasons as driving or drinking. When Rosen points out that the average teenager spends five hours a day on social media, that’s a staggering number of person-hours that have been taken over by companies that take up huge amounts of young people’s time, earn huge sums of money through them, and offering them very little that benefits them – especially considering the other things teenagers might do.
Similar debates took place in the 1950s over time spent watching television, which was largely supplanted among young people by social media. However, television was an almost completely passive medium and it was not possible to insult your neighbor or intimidate your girlfriend through the tube. Mainstream television had its own problems, but they were clearly more benign than the worst pathologies we see today that social media contributes to.
How would a ban on the use of social media by those under 16 be enforced? I can dream up some measures that might not be practical, but might also be worth trying.
One would be having a social media license, comparable to a driver’s license. I can’t imagine what kind of test we could invent to qualify someone who can use social media responsibly. Perhaps a highly guarded “test drive” in which every text and comment from the future licensee would be scrutinized for malice or bullying? Of course, even hypocrites can behave nicely if they have to, and we could just let everyone have a license once they hit their sixteenth birthday.
But I like the idea of putting people to work and teaching them some basic rules of social media behavior before I let them loose on the internet. The idea of a license would also help solve the problem of the application. Banks have found ways to know exactly who is on the keyboard in the vast majority of cases.
Sure, there are always identity thieves to fight, but the thieves go where the money is. There’s not a lot of money in forging a social media account identity, so I think enforcement policies as robust as those used by these banks would keep fake identity issues to a minimum.
Whatever the enforcement mechanism, it should also come with stiff penalties for social media companies for violations. Shutting down half of their servers, for example, could be a far more significant penalty than a fine, which is usually a stark change for these giants.
I will end with an anecdote about a car salesman, about twenty-five years old, with whom I had a conversation one day when we were taking a new car for a test drive. He was obviously trying to please, but the remark he made as my wife and I reminisced about the cars we had twenty and thirty years ago was not meant to please me.
About nothing, he said, “Well, there are things that you enjoyed at the time that I wish I could have experienced. It’s life without it,” he said, pointing to my wife’s cell phone. Of all the changes from our generation to his that he could have mentioned, he viewed the personal phone as something he wished he could have done without.
The hurdles are many, but I hope Rosen’s idea of banning social media for under-16s will be given serious consideration. Evidence has been mounting for decades that this is likely to be a net harm to young people, and what we lack now is only the will to make the change.
This article was republished with permission from the Engineering Ethics blog.