The Attack on Freedom: Florida’s Ban on Youth Social Media Use

From book bans to anti-ESG legislation, when it comes to dabbling in its citizens’ private lives, Florida’s legislature knows no bounds. The latest intrusion of choice is now aimed at social media.

On January 24, the Florida House passed House Bill 1 (HB1) to ban kids 16 and under from using social media. If HB1 becomes law, social media platforms would be forced to implement prescriptive age verification methods for all users (including adults) and carry disclaimers that their products may be harmful.

Proponents of the bill have framed HB1 as a necessary measure intended to “protect” children from the negative impacts of these “addictive” technologies. Frequently cited are claims that adolescents are subject to cyberbullying and sexual predation on these platforms. Of particular concern is the role that excessive social media use plays on teenagers’ mental health.

However, several studies have shown that these claims are unfounded and, at best, speculative. A study published in 2021 in the journal Clinical Psychological Science found that increased technology use among adolescents is not linked to a decline in mental well-being. More recently, another study published by the Oxford Internet Institute found no association between widespread Facebook adoption and psychological harm. In fact, findings from the Oxford study suggested the opposite—that Facebook membership was linked to positive mental well-being. This makes sense, as Facebook is a social media forum that connects friends and family, and therefore, nurtures relationships. Moreover, such platforms have served as a vital source of social support for teenagers deprived of human connection during the COVID-19 era.

Blaming social media for mental health issues isn’t new. Any time new forms of entertainment and social technologies are introduced, society’s natural response is to react with a mixture of nervous apprehension followed by gradual acceptance of the unfamiliar technology.

Consider the ubiquitous “dime novel” of the 20th century (named for its cheap price). When these sensational and wildly sought-after paperbacks first became popular, many cultural commentators believed they were thought to elicit “promiscuous behavior” and moral depravity among their audience. Social critics fretted that these adventure and romance-ridden novels were leading to so-called “reading mania” and “reading rage.” These fears were so widely embedded in the collective psyche that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther was even blamed for a spate of suicides during its time.

The thought that an “epidemic of reading” could ever be considered a social ill nowadays seems absurd. However, to people back then, these were real and legitimate concerns. Sociologist Frank Furedi aptly described “penny dreadfuls,” as they were called in the United Kingdom, as the media’s “first moral panic.”

Similarly, when video games peaked in popularity in the 1980s, they were blamed for an increase in real-world violence and acts of aggression—even mass shootings. Nowadays, most people consider this argument null. However, these myths are difficult to eradicate among the general population once they take hold. 

Other forms of social entertainment that have been unfairly targeted and subject to the “violence” scapegoat narrative include the radio dramas of the 1940s, comic books and television, and music lyrics.

Unfortunately, this same phenomenon is now taking place in the Sunshine State. Well-meaning politicians “concerned” with declining mental health among teenagers blame social media and seek to censor platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Even if it is true that such platforms adversely affect mental health, the decision to prevent teenagers from engaging with these technologies is still one that ought to rest with the parents, not the government.

While there has been a rise in mental health problems across the U.S., social media is not to blame, but rather insufficient access to mental health services. According to the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, scant access to care is the primary cause of the mental health crisis. Barriers like high cost and paltry insurance coverage, as well as limited options and long waits, hinder access to proper treatment. More than 40 percent of candidates polled in a study named cost and poor insurance coverage as the top barrier for obtaining the help they need. Instead of banning platforms that connect people socially, politicians should consider reforming mental health policy.

It is true that adolescents do not have the same capacities to engage in rational decision-making as full-grown adults. But that is precisely why parents should have the ultimate say when it comes to deciding what ideas and information their children can access.

The Florida legislature is forgetting its original purpose of protecting the rights and freedoms of its citizens and unlawfully engaging in constitutional overreach with the passage of HB1. The government doesn’t try to prevent teenagers from indulging in every single harmful behavior (like eating unhealthy fast food) just because of some negative consequences. That would be considered serious governmental overreach. Florida’s creeping descent into paternalism should be viewed in the same light.

HB1 is poised to reach the Governor’s desk in the coming month. Implementation of a similar law in Utah is going poorly, and up against significant court challenges. For the sake of the First Amendment and free speech writ large, Florida should stop trying to carry out a blanket and unconstitutional ban on Floridians’ freedom.