May 14, 2024

Is it time to ban social media for young people? It’s complicated.

Striking a Balance: The Importance of Safe Online Spaces for Young People

Marketing & Communications
Social Media

By Ferenc G. Koszorus

Social media’s harmful effects on young peoples’ mental health has been a topic of conversation for years. Is it time for a social media ban for children and teens?

It’s complicated.

The National Digital Roundtable held a discussion recently at the American Psychological Association's Washington, D.C. office focusing on youth safety in the digital age, particularly the potential risks of social media content, features, and functions on youth mental health.

“It’s hard to find a topic more important and relevant than this one,” said Anthony Shop , chairman of the National Digital Roundtable. “It’s why we wanted to bring the research of the APA before a group of leaders ranging from the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Center for SafeSport, to Pinterest and The Elizabeth Dole Foundation. These issues cannot be solved in silos.”

Most roundtable participants agreed that calls for a total social media ban for young people is not an effective solution, but creating safe and supportive online environments for diverse youth is necessary.

Here are some key takeaways from the conversation.

Young people are not being adequately protected on social media platforms

The APA’s recently published report reveals just how big of a problem social media poses to young peoples’ mental health.

“There’s a prevalence of worry around [young peoples’ use of] these technologies,” said Corbin Evans , Senior Director, Congressional & Federal Relations at the APA.

Young people are increasingly living their lives online. The risks this poses for those ages 10-13 can be particularly high. This is the second most important time in a young person’s brain development, where kids seek out what they’re interested in.

“[Social media] technologies are tailor-made to find your likes, find your interests … but it’s hard for young people to put on the brakes,” said Evans.

Conversations on Capitol Hill have ranged from age-gating to an outright ban on young people from using social media. Most participants agreed that a ban would be irresponsible, while emphasizing the need to hold social media companies accountable for making their platforms safe for youth.

Social media is a lifeline for many young people

Often missing from the conversation of keeping young people safe online are young people themselves.

Casey Pick, Director of Law and Policy at The Trevor Project explained that for LGBTQ+ youth, social media can provide important spaces to find community and representation when doing so offline is becoming increasingly unsafe (again).

These platforms are also where LGBTQ+ youth can get help when they are in a crisis, safely and privately. “Young [LGBTQ+ people] are aware of [the social media age ban] debate and are concerned that they will lose access to online communities,” said Pick.

For LGBTQ+ youth of color, safe spaces online can be the only place to connect with other queer youth of color.

What role do parents, caregivers, and schools have?

Parents and caregivers have an important role to play in keeping their kids safe online.

Bethany Robertson , Founder of Parents Together emphasized the importance of empowering parents and caregivers through education and resources, since many are not equipped with the tools needed to help keep their kids safe.

It cannot solely be up to parents and caregivers though. “We’re asking parents to be involved and keep kids safe when there’s no way to do that given how the technologies are set up,” Robertson said.

Schools also play a critical role, particularly when it comes to funding programs that improve mental health.

Caitlin Hochul , VP of Public Policy at inseparable stressed the need to look more holistically at what supports young peoples’ mental health. “Going after social media companies is a quick fix. We need to talk about school mental health services, social connections, outdoor spaces, sports, etc.”

Is there anything being done at the national and local levels?

Advocacy organizations are trying to nudge the conversation about youth online safety to a more productive place, but not much has happened in terms of policy. In addition, policymakers have historically lacked an understanding of how online technologies work.

Under Sec. Mayorkas, U.S. Department of Homeland Security is taking action to protect youth online. The department recently launched Know2Protect, a national public awareness campaign to prevent and combat online child sexual exploitation and abuse.

“The purpose is to pull back the curtain, to start a national dialogue about what could happen when a kid is on social media,” said Kate Kennedy, Know2Protect’s Campaign Director.

On the local level, the National Governors Association recently created a playbook with actions governors can take to strengthen youth mental health in communities across their states.

What are social media platforms doing?

Pinterest is trying to figure out how to make sure its platform is a safe place for younger users while also adding value to their lives.

“There are lots of conversations about bans and growing concern around the role social media plays on the mental health and wellbeing of young people (and for good reason) … We’re trying to think about what is an affirmative vision of social media, not just what we want to strip away,” said Alise Marshall, Senior Director, Corporate Affairs & Social Impact at Pinterest.

Marshall highlighted the need to create algorithms that prioritize content that makes young people feel safe, included, and represented. She also discussed the importance of non-engagement metrics that move beyond likes as a way to promote safety and inclusion. Engaging young people and bringing them into the conversation about solutions is also key. Pinterest also recently released a ‘Field Guide to Non-Engagement Signals’ highlighting the importance of tuning platforms and content ranking systems for other non-engagement metrics such as user wellbeing.

Pinterest is also focused on what can be done offline to address a crisis that has risen to the level of a national advisory from U.S Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. "Far too many young people are struggling with their mental health and unable to get the support they need. We all have a role to play in supporting youth mental health and creating a world where young people thrive,” he said.

Pinterest  recently announced the launch of the Youth Mental Health Corps, a collaborative initiative that will support youth mental health in schools and communities while giving over 500 young adults on-ramps into behavioral health careers. This program was designed in partnership with the Schultz Family Foundation and AmeriCorps.

Safer, more inclusive social media platforms for young people are possible

The issue of protecting young people online is more complex than social media age-related bans. As Charo Bates, Manager of Hidden Helpers at the Elizabeth Dole Foundation stated, it’s key to figure out a more reasonable path.

Social media platforms provide important spaces for diverse groups of young people to connect with each other, express themselves, and find help in times of crisis. On the other hand, social media platforms present well-documented risks for young peoples’ mental health and safety.

Social media companies are responsible for creating algorithms that promote healthy, safe environments for young people – and not only as a tool for ad revenue.

Parents and caregivers, schools, and policymakers all have important roles to play in getting educated on how social media works. Policymakers have a responsibility to find solutions and enact regulations that ensure social media and other emerging technologies are safe for young people and conducive to their mental health.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher, especially for our kids,” said Dr. Nii-Quartelai Quartey, Host of KBLA’s “A More Perfect Union” and a National Digital Roundtable advisory board member.

This roundtable recap was written by Ferenc G. Koszorus, a social media consultant based in Washington, D.C.