Empowering Parents to Regulate Children’s Social Media Use

It’s been 21 years since the feds “protected” us from endless telemarketer phone calls by creating a Do Not Call list. I now receive perhaps a dozen calls a day from numbers my phone identifies as “Potential Spam.”

Spammers “outwitted the government and wrecked” this system, The Washington Post reported, leaving Americans more susceptible than ever to car warranty pitches. Fortunately, my phone’s call-block system works fairly well.

Excuse my cynicism, but federal and state governments have an unimpressive record of protecting the public, especially on consumer-related issues. That hasn’t stopped them from trying. The process always is the same: Politicians spotlight a legitimate concern. They pass laws. They hold press conferences. The problem gets worse. Consumers (and manufacturers) come up with their own ways to handle it.

The latest consumer panic involves social media—specifically the ability of children to access inappropriate websites and apps. Liberal and conservative state governments are in a frenzy to pass these “protect the children” internet laws. Progressive California passed Assembly Bill 2273, which imposes an “Age Appropriate Design Code” that adopts provisions similar to those implemented by the European Union.

The legislation claims to empower parents, but it mainly empowers our state government to determine what information is acceptable for children. Specifically, the law requires tech companies to complete a “Data Protection Impact Assessment…for any online service, product, or feature likely to be accessed by children.” It also empowers the state attorney general to file lawsuits against companies that don’t conform to these nebulous standards.

Supporters pointed to serious mental health concerns related to cyberbullying and the like, but it mainly forces tech companies to serve as censors, gives government officials broad powers to determine appropriate speech, and hobbles U.S.-based companies while doing nothing about offshore sites that surely will proliferate. By the way, the Do Not Call List helped assure that legitimate (but still annoying) telemarketing companies would be supplanted by overseas scammers.

The California law passed by overwhelming margins because of, well, “the children.” Now conservative states are getting in on the action. Utah’s GOP Gov. Spencer Cox last year signed two such laws that require “parental consent for a minor to join a social-media platform” and prohibit “minors from using social media from the hours of 10:30 pm to 6:30 am,” per an NPR report. They also require parental access to their kids’ accounts and let the state sue companies for age-inappropriate ads.

That’s basically the dictionary definition of the Nanny State. These types of “cut and paste” laws have a tendency to spread. Idaho is the next Western state that’s seriously mulling similar proposals that would impose a top-down approach toward a situation that’s highly individualized in its impact. It should go without saying, but different people react to social media in different ways. Free societies generally leave these matters to individuals and families.

If history is a guide, there will be unforeseen consequences. Given that they’re “unforeseen,” it’s impossible to precisely predict the end result. But it’s a safe bet that children will not be any safer—and probably will be worse off—a few years from now. Government will have new powers that it will use in destructive new ways. By then, politicians will be on to some new moral panic. Rinse and repeat.

Fortunately, one governor has some foresight. During a Meet the Press interview last month, Cox was joined by Colorado’s moderate Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, who made this point: “I have a 12-year-old and a nine-year-old. We don’t allow them on social media yet….But I think really, fundamentally, the state can’t be the parents for kids.”

At last, some politician said out loud what most of us are thinking.

Polis didn’t deny that an excess use of social media can have detrimental effects on children. Advocates of these policies point to myriad studies showing an increase in anxiety, low self-esteem, sleep problems, and addictions as teens have become more dependent on modern communication tools. One federal Laboratory of Medicine study notes such problems intensified during the COVID-19 lockdowns, which suggests adult policymakers are partly to blame.

Typically, these “we must do something” policies focus too much on the “crisis” and too little on the follow-up questions: Will the proposed solution make life better or worse? What are the likely workarounds? Is the situation really as bad as the alarmists claim? Do these laws give government authorities too much power? Is this problem unique, or just the latest manifestation of enduring human challenges (such as adolescence)?

As usual, the answer might be simpler than we think. As Polis added, “the responsibility belongs with parents, not the government.” Parents need to step to the plate, just as cellphone users needed to come up with their own solutions to a problem few of us should ever have expected the government to have solved in the first place.

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.