- - Wednesday, March 13, 2024

A version of this story appeared in the Higher Ground newsletter from The Washington Times. Click here to receive Higher Ground delivered directly to your inbox each Sunday.

If you’re a parent allowing your children unfettered access to social media, you’re willfully abdicating your responsibility to protect and at grave risk of irreparably damaging them.

And that’s not an exaggeration. As a parent of daughters ages 8 and 11, I’m increasingly perplexed, disturbed and flat-out flummoxed by the moms and dads out there who hand over a smartphone and let their young ones surf Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok.

The list of platforms is much longer than that, but those are the “big 5” — the most monumental social media megaphones perpetuating society’s insatiable addiction to doom scrolling. 

If we’re honest, most adults are addicted to one or more of these platforms, as minutes often turn to hours of wasted time watching random content. And as our kids observe us drooling over the latest TikTok trends, they, too, naturally want access to the same “high.” 

The problem? Their brains weren’t built for the influx of unpredictable content, the algorithm can lead them to dangerous places, and we have documented and verifiable evidence that exposing kids to so much social media is emotionally damaging — and even deadly.

First, there are the rare and extreme stories that, at the least, demand our attention. The latest heartbreaking event surrounds an 11-year-old boy from England who died after engaging in a viral TikTok craze known as “chroming,” a practice of huffing and inhaling fumes from cleaning products. 

The child went into cardiac arrest and died. Now, his despairing family members reportedly want TikTok banned and are pushing for restrictions on use of other platforms for any child under the age of 16.

States such as Utah and Arkansas have already jumped on this bandwagon, requiring parental permission for kids to use social media. It’s a helpful but not foolproof move, especially when parents choose to willingly hand their kids over to the Big Tech overlords.

Here in the U.S., numerous teens have died or been injured while engaging in another viral sensation called “train surfing,” a bizarre phenomenon where youngsters riding atop moving trains.

“A truly great TikTok is not worth your life,” Rafael Mandelman, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, said in a recent statement after a train surfing death.

Of course, some would argue these rare social media fallouts will never affect the majority of young people. Regardless, an increasing number of researchers and politicians are recognizing a more sweeping and pervasive problem: the mental health crisis social media poses.

New York Mayor Eric Adams recently directed his administration to file a lawsuit against the owners of Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube and TikTok, accusing the outlets of harming young people’s mental health and well-being. 

These companies are blamed for designing and marketing their addictive offerings, thus impacting the school system and social services, with Mr. Adams releasing a statement lamenting how kids have been exposed to “a non-stop stream of harmful content,” with these platforms “fueling our national youth mental health crisis.”

And the mayor of our nation’s largest city isn’t alone. Last year, 33 states joined forces to sue Meta, owner of Facebook and Instagram, on similar grounds.

“The company knew that targeting youth posed risks to their mental health,” Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said late last year. “Meta did not just disregard those risks, but exploited them to maximize their profits.”

The merits of those cases will certainly be hashed out in the courts, but the statistics surrounding social media use, alone, are deeply troubling. The Pew Research Center found that 95% of teens have smartphone access, with about 60% using Instagram, TikTok or Snapchat. 

The first sign there’s tech trouble on the horizon can be seen in Pew’s finding that “72% of U.S. teens say they often or sometimes feel peaceful when they don’t have their smartphone.” Another study found some kids are on their phones as much as 16 hours per day, with some checking their devices as many as 498 times a day. These are disturbing claims. to say the least. 

With smartphones kicking up in popularity over the past 10 to 15 years, some research shows an increase in emotional distress during this same time. One World Health Organization survey looking at 13- to 15-year-olds in 50 nations found such duress, with social media use eclipsing the time young people spent with friends — and even sleeping.

“A large United Kingdom study of 14- and 15-year-old teens discovered that those who used social media slept poorly, were more likely to be bullied online and were prone to have poor body image issues,” Diane Bell wrote in a 2023 column. “What’s more, girls who heavily used social media were three times more likely to be depressed than non-users.”

I could go on for eons with more data, as researchers are increasingly sounding the alarm. Yet many parents aren’t getting the message.

Another issue is the elusive “algorithm,” the systems that often serve up similar videos and posts based on frequently viewed content types. If a child accidentally stumbles upon a troubling or disturbing social media post, there’s no telling where it could lead.

Amnesty International, among others, has voiced concerns about mental health content, saying, “TikTok’s content recommender system and its invasive data collection practices pose a danger to young users of the platform by amplifying depressive and suicidal content that risk worsening existing mental health challenges.” 

The idea that children can be trusted to maneuver through the magnitude of social media content without stumbling upon land mines is total madness. 

It’s akin to releasing a small child alone in a crowded mall and hoping he somehow, on his own, finds the right exit and gets to his family’s vehicle. No sane parent would ever facilitate such a thing, yet we treat young people the same way when it comes to social media.

Parents should immediately take steps to monitor their kids’ media intake, cut down on screen time, keep phones out of kids’ rooms and intentionally curate online experiences. If you love your children, you’ll stop willfully opening them up to such profound damage.

Billy Hallowell is a digital TV host and interviewer for Faithwire and CBN News and the co-host of CBN’s “Quick Start Podcast.” He is the author of four books.

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