Monday, April 15, 2024

It's Time to Ban Social Media on Smartphones for Children and Adolescents


In the May issue of National Review, San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge presents smoking-gun data that shows the manifold harms to children and teenagers caused by smartphones, specifically social-media use on them.  She claims, and I agree, that we have to do more to alleviate these harms, by government intervention if necessary. 


First, the harms.  Twenge has collected data on a wide number of measures of wellbeing including sleep patterns, socializing, indicators of loneliness and depression, and participation in adult activities.  Significant shifts in all these data have occurred over the last five decades. 


In-person socializing, measured as the percentage of U. S. teens going out with friends twice a week or more, was reasonably steady until about 2008, when it began to decline, and fell off a cliff around 2012, falling from 80% in 1976 to around 55% in 2021 for 12th-graders.


The percentage of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders sleeping less than seven hours a night was about 35% from 2003 to 2013, when it abruptly took off and rose steadily to 50% by 2022. 


The percentage of U. S. 12- to 17-year-old girls suffering major depression in the past 12 months was steady at 12% until 2011, and then went through a similar rise to almost 30% by 2021.


And the percentage of 15-year-olds measuring "high" in loneliness in regions as disparate as Asia, Latin America, Europe, and English-speaking countries all show a sharp uptick when?  Three guesses and the first two don't count:  2012.


What happened in 2012?  It was the year that the number of smartphone users in the U. S. crossed 130 million on its eventual way to the current number of 316 million, out of a population of about 330 million.  Also, the number of active Facebook users crossed the 1 billion mark worldwide that same year. 


Twenge, wearing her good-scientist hat, proposes other possible causes for these dismal statistics about teen wellbeing:  anxiety over college debt, the opioid crisis, even global warming.  None of them pass muster.  Her close study of the detailed behavior patterns of teens regarding smartphones reveals that the average U. S. adolescent spends nearly five hours a day on social media.  That's more than a half-time job, seven days a week. 


Anyone observing teens in the wild can confirm that their faces are stuck to their phones at every possible moment—in an elevator, walking down the street, at mealtimes with or without other family members, and evidently late at night too.  As for the other possible causes Twenge diligently considers and rejects, there is no such thing as mathematical proof in psychology, but she has come as close as anybody can to proving that social media use on smartphones has had a huge, and largely negative, influence on the daily lives of teenagers. 


Granting the validity of her case, what is to be done about it? 


Leaving teenagers in the gentle hands of the social-media companies is like leaving the hens in the gentle paws of the fox.  Some of the world's most sophisticated and effective AI software drives teens to keep clicking and scrolling on infinite websites, because the firms' profits depend on their doing so. 


Asking parents to control their teens' use of smartphones is nice in theory, but one would have to be a literal helicopter parent to do that effectively, hovering over each child's shoulder every waking minute of the day.  Yes, there is software to block certain sites, but teens know ways to evade such restrictions, and it's simply impossible for even highly conscientious parents to monitor and censor every last thing a child does with his or her phone. 


Twenge proposes a straightforward ban on social media use for everyone under 16.  While the brain of a sixteen-year-old has still got a lot of maturing to do, this age represents a compromise between exposing highly vulnerable young people to the harmful effects of social-media use and keeping them from using it when they are mature enough not to be significantly harmed by it.  While an outright ban is still in the future, a number of states (Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, an Utah) have passed laws requiring that firms obtain parental permission before allowing people under 16 to get social media accounts. 


In many ways, this issue has parallels with the way attitudes and laws concerning smoking changed during the last part of the twentieth century.  Once a near-universal social habit, smoking was first revealed to be a leading cause of lung cancer.  Then when we found that cigarette companies had engaged in a concerted effort to deceive the public, their reputation suffered further.  The banning of cigarette ads from TV and radio in 1971 began a general social trend that gradually changed smoking from a normal activity to one engaged in by a decided minority of people, but only after years of adverse publicity, revelations of corporate wrongdoing, and contested legislation.


Largely because of the profits involved, we can expect a similar battle over an all-out ban on social media for teens.  In this case, however, the people most affected can't directly influence legislators, not being old enough to vote.  It is up to parents and others concerned about the wellbeing of the next generation to organize opposition to powerful entrenched interests backed by billions of dollars.  And even if our small-r republican system of government was in proper working order, this would be a hard fight. 


Fortunately, protecting children and adolescents from psychological harm has not become a partisan issue—yet.  Both Democrats and Republicans can understand the need to keep social-media firms from exploiting populations who suffer harm all out of proportion to their numbers.  Twenge and her fellow social-science colleagues have given us all the proof we need to take action.  Now all that is needed is the courage and diligence to see it through.


Sources:  Jean M. Twenge's article "Ending the Tyranny of Smartphones" appeared on pp. 34-38 of the May 2024 issue of National Review, and relies on data presented more fully in her latest book Generations (Atria Books, 2023).  I also referred to data from the following websites:,, and 


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