It's going to be more difficult for Arkansas teens to share selfies on Instagram. The state's Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) this week signed a law requiring young people to get their parent's permission before starting a social media account, ABC News reports. "While social media can be a great tool and a wonderful resource, it can have a massive negative impact on our kids," Sanders said. Utah has already passed a similar law, and other states may soon follow.
Why is this happening? There are real worries about teens' well-being. "There is substantial evidence that American teenagers have experienced a serious decline in their mental health over the past few years," Mike Bebernes writes at Yahoo. And there is a growing — sometimes heated — debate about whether social media sites are the culprit. New York magazine quotes psychologist Jean M. Twenge: "The sudden, sharp rise in depressive symptoms occurred at almost exactly the same time that smartphones became ubiquitous and in-person interaction plummeted." For social media critics, that doesn't seem like a coincidence.
In fact, researchers say, social media can affect the chemistry of still-developing brains. Those apps have "the potential to alter youths' neural development, since our brains develop in response to the environment we live in," the American Psychological Association's Mitch Prinstein told the Senate Judiciary Committee in February. But does that mean that state governments should intervene to restrain kids from spending all their time online instead of with real-life friends?
Kids have First Amendment rights. But…
Other states should follow Arkansas and Utah, Leana S. Wen writes at The Washington Post: "Moms and dads need to parent in the digital world just as we do in the physical world." There are some drawbacks to such social media restrictions. Kids in marginalized communities — like minority and LGBTQ teens — could find it harder to find their people online if they first have to get a parent's permission. And "enforcement is an issue." But for the most part, parents "want to know who our children's friends are and how they spend their time together." That responsibility doesn't go away when kids are online.
"These bills will likely face considerable constitutional challenges," Jay Caspian Kang writes at the New Yorker. How you feel about the law depends on if you think that social media sites are an important part of "the national conversation," or if you believe the "platforms are addictive products—like cigarettes" that kids need to be protected from. Parents can start by setting a better example and weaning themselves off of Twitter and Facebook. We "may just have to do the unthinkable and rip the screens out of children's hands and our own."
Not everybody is comfortable with that idea. "The proposed solution of banishing millions of prolific users from cyberspace is an overcorrection, and an unconstitutional one at that," Charles Brandt writes at the Orange County Register. Teens are entitled to First Amendment protections, allowed to seek out information and express themselves on social media sites. Sure, "excessive social media use detracts from the mental health of minors," but the platforms also give youngsters a "unique, rich, and effective way to express themselves."
More states may follow Arkansas and Utah. Wisconsin and Iowa lawmakers are considering similar bills. "We have to give our parents a fighting chance and right now they are electronically, technologically outgunned," says Wisconsin Republican Rep. David Steffen. Virginia legislators, on the other hand, have dismissed social media legislation. "Trying to prevent people from trying to see things on the internet is like standing on the beach and trying to stop the tide from coming in," one state senator argued.
But social media restrainers may not need a law to discourage youngsters from social media use. "For Gen-Z, social media has always been a given," Teen Vogue points out, but a number of "influencer" parents are pulling back, part of a "seeming tide change toward protecting the privacy of children." And kids who were raised as featured characters on their parents' social media sites are warning others not to repeat the mistake. "Your child will never be normal," one youngster lamented. "I never consented to being online."
It's not clear how well the new laws will actually work. The New Republic reports that the Arkansas law is incomplete: "It seems a lot of apps, like TikTok and Snapchat, are exempt."