Two recently introduced bills would change how young people interact with the Internet. While the legislators introducing these laws blame social media and social media companies for the rise in mental health issues, the research paints a more complex picture. There are better ways of combatting the mental health crisis and protecting children.
The bills introduced cover different aspects of children’s internet use, an update to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) known as the Children and Teens Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA 2.0, primarily deals with data collection of users, extending the existing COPPA protections to ages 13-16 but also revises an aspect of COPPA. Under the earlier version, the standard for companies is actual knowledge of underage use, and the revised version changes this to a reasonable likelihood of being used by minors. In addition, the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) explicitly targets a wide range of harms, including online bullying solicitation and expanded data privacy protection. Supporters tout both bills as solutions to the mental health crisis among kids and teens.
Popular narratives frame social media as the source of mental health issues among kids and teens. Unfortunately, the only proposed attempts to address these concerns have been to overregulate technological innovators. Researchers in pediatric mental health have not reached a definite consensus on how internet use affects kids’ and teens mental health in contrast to how politicians frame the issue. While excessive use of social media does correlate with increased mental health issues among kids and teenagers, it has not yet been established that social media use causes these issues.
The sources of these issues are complex and multifaceted and cover online and offline experiences. For example, racial discrimination can impact teen mental health, with a study finding a link between poor mental health during the pandemic and experiencing racism. Biological factors also play a role. With the average age of puberty falling, parts of the brain linked to emotion develop more quickly than teens’ ability to regulate it, leading to mental health struggles.
Many factors were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent loss of connection and support through the school systems. Social media can play a role, but it is one of many factors rather than the main source, as is portrayed by proponents of these bills.
There is no quick fix for the mental health crisis, including increased government restrictions. However, there are ways to protect children online from unwelcome content and promote healthy engagement with social media.
The American Psychological Association (APA) released guidelines for adolescent use of social media, explaining that using these services isn’t inherently beneficial or detrimental to teen mental health. The use of social media platforms and monitoring thereof should be based on where said teenager is regarding development, with younger teenagers needing more monitoring and older teenagers having more autonomy.
Politicians often promise simple solutions to complex problems, but top-down reworking of internet regulation will not solve the mental health crisis among young people. Learning how to navigate the online world with guidance from parents based on their child’s needs is more effective than a blanket law.
Trey Price is a technology policy analyst for the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit education and research organization. For more information, visit https://www.theamericanconsumer.org/ or follow us on Twitter @ConsumerPal.