Unintended Consequences: Reconsidering Bans on Teen Smartphone and Social Media Use

A growing movement that advocates for the restriction of cellphones and access to social media for those under the age of 16 is creating conversations on the possible impact that this may have on the level of happiness and safety experienced by young people. 

The initiative has garnered support from Esther Ghey, the mother of the late teenager Brianna Ghey, who is actively campaigning for the restriction of social media apps for those under the age of 16. The Smartphone Free Childhood WhatsApp group is the driving force behind this initiative, which aims to establish a norm of delaying the use of smartphones until at least the age of 14.

Concerns are centered on the content accessible to young users, ranging from potentially harmful to illegal, and the potential for negative interactions leading to distressing experiences.

However, skepticism arises from experts in young people’s digital media use, challenging the efficacy and evidence behind imposing age-based bans. The debate questions whether such restrictions would genuinely enhance the safety and happiness of young individuals.

Despite concerns, studies show that the majority of young people maintain a positive relationship with digital technology. A 2018 report, based on a survey of over 8,000 young people conducted in collaboration with South West Grid for Learning, revealed that more than two-thirds of respondents had never encountered upsetting online experiences.

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Research Challenges Social Media Bans

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A growing movement that advocates for the restriction of cellphones and access to social media for those under the age of 16 is creating conversations on the possible impact that this may have on the level of happiness and safety experienced by young people.

Extensive research examining the connection between social media and emotional well-being suggests limited evidence supporting the notion that social media directly leads to psychological harm.

Critics argue that calls for bans on digital activities echo previous unsuccessful attempts to prevent social harms, such as underage sex or access to drugs and alcohol. They emphasize the need for effective education and the importance of establishing trust with young people, rather than implementing restrictive measures.

Highlighting the challenges of enforcing age-based bans, the prevalence of hand-me-down phones and the second-hand market for devices make it difficult to ensure accurate age verification. Drawing parallels with efforts to restrict youth access to pornography, research from the Children’s Commissioner for England demonstrates the inadequacy of such measures despite the legal age for viewing being 18.

As discussions around online safety intensify, experts caution against eroding trust between young individuals and adults who can offer support. Instead, they advocate for improved understanding among adults and enhanced education for young people to navigate the digital landscape responsibly.

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