In one generation, the world has experienced seismic shifts in the way we communicate and relate to one another, but these changes are coming at a high cost – particularly to our children.
Most teenagers (97%) report being online every day, and nearly half (46%) say they are online “almost constantly,” but recent research from scientists at the University of North Carolina shows that all of this time on social media is linked to changes in the teen brain.
By looking at brain scans of middle schoolers between the ages of 12 and 15, neuroscientists at UNC found that frequent social media users at age 12 showed heightened sensitivity to social rewards from peers over time. Teenagers who were less engaged with social media at age 12 showed less interest in social rewards over time.
Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of iGen, has also sounded the alarm on the link between social media use and anxiety and depression in teens. “There is a substantial link to depression, and that link tends to be stronger among girls… The more time the teen, particularly a teen girl, spends using social media, the more likely it is that she will be depressed,” according to Twenge.
Any new habit or learned behavior leaves its imprint on the brain. The fact that the brain is imprinted by social media use should not come as a surprise. But most parents who let their children create social media accounts are probably unaware of the extent to which those social media accounts are training their children to seek peer approval or what the long-term consequences might be. Fear of rejection, fear of missing out, not getting enough likes on a social post can all feed social anxiety and lead to depression. These problems are only exacerbated by the addictive nature of social media.
Entertainment programming featuring and targeting children and teens is also contributing to a toxic media culture by normalizing and romanticizing drug addiction, suicide, sexual abuse, mental health challenges, and violence, and the tragic result is to push those at risk into even deeper darkness and despair.
HBO’s “Euphoria” is a teen-targeted program that has shown adults raping children and full-frontal male and female nudity (of both adult and teen characters); has mainstreamed underage drinking and illicit drug use, and has barraged viewers with explicit language. “Euphoria” revels in this darkness, offering nary a glimmer of hope to anyone struggling with drug addiction or other trauma. HBO markets “Euphoria” to teens on TikTok, where video clips have been viewed over a billion times.
Netflix’s teen-targeted suicide drama, “13 Reasons Why,” was associated with a 28.9% increase in suicide rates among U.S. youth ages 10-17 in the month (April 2017) following the show’s release, after accounting for ongoing trends in suicide rates. After a groundswell of public condemnation, Netflix eventually removed the graphic suicide scene from the program, but the series is still available to watch.
Even today, suicide is the second leading cause of death among children and young teens in America. The U.S. Surgeon General has warned about the looming mental health crisis facing America’s youth, and new data shows that U.S. suicide rates rose in 2021, and males aged 15 to 24 experienced the sharpest increase.
President Biden has called on tech leaders to ensure children are protected from online content “that threatens their mental health and safety.”
Leaders must recognize that multifaceted solutions are needed. Congress should focus on ensuring children are better protected from harm online, and work to pass solutions like the Kids Online Safety Act and the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act. Families should have the ability to access content filtering on popular streaming platforms to better shield their children from harmful entertainment content, and Congress should pass the Family Movie Act.
In California, the Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom, will ensure that tech companies design their products with children’s safety and privacy in mind. The Ad Council recently announced that it would plan to spend $65 million on a seven-year Mental Health Initiative to draw attention to mental health issues.
These are helpful solutions yet more must be done. With a mental health crisis among youth, coupled with growing evidence of social media’s harm on children, it is time for those in the entertainment and technology industries to better protect our children.
Melissa Henson is the vice president of the Parents Television and Media Council (PTC), a nonpartisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment. Twitter: @ThePTC
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Daily Wire.