Teens and tech: Why is Big Tech like Big Tobacco? | Opinion
Imagine if a man in a white panel van pulled up in your neighborhood and began enticing teens to look at pictures and videos featuring drug use, pornography and a range of other antisocial activities. In many neighborhoods, he’d be in handcuffs within the hour.
And yet, strangely enough, Mark Zuckerberg, Shou Zi Chew and Sundar Pichai do almost the same thing online at Instagram, TikTok and YouTube, where they have virtually unimpeded access to the neighborhood teens and manage to make billions of dollars poisoning their hearts and minds.
This is the strange moment we are living in, a moment where we still let Big Tech push products on our teens that, as the Facebook Files suggested, make them anxious, depressed and suicidal, among other pathologies.
We’re at a moment with Big Tech much like we were with Big Tobacco in the 1970s, when the studies were rolling in documenting the medical risks associated with smoking, but the government had not yet stepped in aggressively to limit smoking. In the past decade, anxiety, depression and teen suicide have surged, especially among girls, since the mass adoption of smartphones around 2010. Depression more than doubled, from 12% in 2010 to 26% today for teen girls. Emergency room visits for self-inflicted injuries almost doubled over the same period, again for teen girls. And teen suicide among girls has risen to a 40-year high.
A mounting body of evidence indicates that Big Tech is heavily implicated in the skyrocketing psychological problems of our nation’s adolescents. One recent study found that teens who devote more than eight hours a day to screen time were about twice as likely to be depressed as their peers who were on screens less often than that.
The study, sponsored by the Institute for Family Studies and the Wheatley Institute and co-authored by one of us, also discovered that teens who have high tech use were almost twice as likely to report being lonely and about 30% more likely to be sleep deprived.
Social media appears to be especially problematic for today’s teens. Excessive time on social media has been linked to “fear of missing out,” cyberbullying, emotional insecurity and body-image problems. The time devoted to social media also inhibits in-person socializing, exercise and sleep, all of which are crucial for adolescents’ emotional well-being. Research by psychologist Jean Twenge found, for instance, that the share of teens who went on dates has fallen by almost 30 percentage points in recent years and that the number of times teens hang out with friends fell by about 20% from 2007 to 2015. “As long as teens are scrolling through Instagram more, and hanging in person with their friends less, depression is likely to remain at historically high levels,” noted Twenge.
Of course, just as Big Tobacco had its defenders as debates about the tobacco-cancer link first erupted, Big Tech has its defenders today, as well. For example, Harvard social scientist Mesfin Bekalu argued that routine social media use “could be beneficial,” a sentiment echoed by Zuckerberg in his claim that Instagram is “generally positive” for kids’ mental health. While all social scientists know that “correlation does not equal causation,” there is growing evidence that the negative impact of technology on teens is indeed causal. In fact, new studies of the rollout of broadband internet in Germany and Italy show the penetration of the internet into ordinary communities across these countries fueled emotional problems among the young, especially young women, providing the strongest evidence to date that it really is Big Tech, not something else, making us miserable.
Here in the United States, a new study finds that the expansion of the internet has driven suicide rates higher in counties across America, further evidence that Big Tech’s effects are causal.
Unfortunately, Big Tech has been able to prey on our teens in part because their apps operate under a law that was designed before the age of social media, giving parents very little control over their kids’ tech use. That law, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, was passed in 1998 in the age of dial-up internet service and online message boards. Since then, the internet has gone through significant changes. Today, at the click of a button or the swipe of a phone, our children can find themselves immersed in apps and games that expose them to antisocial images and messages without their parents’ knowledge, consent or protection.
But since Congress has failed to stand up to Big Tech by updating the legislation, it falls on states to take the lead in protecting our kids. Louisiana recently passed legislation requiring pornography sites to verify users’ ages. And Utah, under the leadership of Gov. Spencer Cox, is now poised to take the lead in protecting teens from the worst excesses of Big Tech.
Inspired in part by the report “Protecting Teens from Big Tech: Five Policy Ideas for States,” Utah state legislators like Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, and Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, are working with Cox to advance legislation that would ensure that all social media platforms operating in the state do five things:
- Age verify their users.
- Get permission from parents for users younger than 18.
- Give parents access to kids’ social media accounts.
- Provide parents with the right to sue Big Tech for financial damages if they do not obey the law.
- Prohibit Big Tech companies from using kids’ data or addictive algorithms on platforms serving children.
Cox also hopes to launch a public campaign that will educate kids and young adults about the dangers of devoting too much time to the virtual world, and not enough time to the real world.
Some will argue that such reforms are unnecessary or impractical. Regarding necessity, those who are parents today know how hard it can be to police their children’s social media accounts. The law should make it easier — not harder — for parents to protect their children.
As for feasibility, new online technologies make it easy to require age/ID verification for children’s use of apps through third-party services such as Persona. And parental monitoring of such apps can build on the success that companies like Greenlight (which provides debit cards that allow parents to oversee their children’s spending) have already had in implementing this type of technology.
Companies like Alphabet, Meta and TikTok have unparalleled power to shape the hearts, minds and lives of American adolescents. Of course, some of the connections forged by these platforms have been good, helping kids deepen friendships, stay in touch with grandparents or communicate socially redeeming messages.
But much of the time, the power that Big Tech wields over our children’s lives ends up being abused and abusive, and Cox aims to give parents more power to guide and protect their kids online. We hope the Utah state legislature will work with him to pass legislation to rein in Big Tech.
As Cox said at a recent symposium on social media and teen mental health, “I truly believe we are starting to reach this tipping point. I was shocked when I saw some of those charts and graphs. I knew it was worse, but I didn’t realize how much until I saw the data. And when I saw those, it was an awakening for me, and we’re hoping to have that same awakening with policymakers.”
In other words, it’s time for Utah — and the rest of the country — to treat Big Tech much like Big Tobacco.
Brad Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, is a fellow of the Institute for Family Studies and the American Enterprise Institute. Riley Peterson is an undergraduate studying religion and sociology at Baylor University.