The Best Way To Protect Your Kids From Being Harmed By A Smartphone Is To Not Give Them A Smartphone

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 31: Mark Zuckerberg (R), CEO of Meta testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on January 31, 2024 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony from the heads of the largest tech firms on the dangers of child sexual exploitation on social media. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

For a long time, it hasn’t been clear what could possibly prompt a tech oligarch in this country to apologize for anything.

Everyone knows that Tim Cook will never say he’s sorry about working with sweatshops in China, just like Jeff Bezos will never apologize for selling all of the garbage products that these sweatshops produce. And you certainly won’t hear Mark Zuckerberg say he regrets his efforts to manipulate the last presidential election. He spent hundreds of millions of dollars to influence everything from mail-in voting to the design of the physical ballots that were delivered to voters’ homes, and to this day he seems proud of it.

He also doesn’t seem that bothered by Facebook’s decision to censor the Hunter Biden laptop story. He certainly didn’t release the Facebook version of the “Twitter files,” or anything like it. There was no meaningful mea culpa. Zuckerberg just said the situation “sucks,” and that was the end of it.

That’s what makes this moment from yesterday’s hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on “online child safety” so interesting. After prodding from Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, Zuckerberg stood up and apologized to families seated behind him. These are families who say their children were exploited or died because they encountered content on Meta’s social media apps — whether that’s because they were bullied and committed suicide, or because they bought drugs on Instagram, or participated in the “blackout challenge” and suffocated, or appeared in child pornography, or other unspeakable horrors along those lines. Watch:

It’s hard to hear exactly what Zuckerberg says there: “I’m sorry for everything you’ve all gone through. Nobody should have to go through what your families have suffered. This is why we have invested so much and are going to continue industry-leading efforts to make sure that no one has to go through the types of things your families have suffered.”

Some outlets have suggested that this was an unscripted moment. I’m not sure I buy that. But it’s still worth dissecting it a bit. The implication of what Mark Zuckerberg said is that, if his social media platforms had done more, maybe these people’s children would still be alive. As carefully workshopped as this apology is, it’s still an unprecedented admission from the head of a major technology company. Even though Zuckerberg stopped short of admitting that his products were directly responsible for any deaths, he did convey some at least some sense of remorse to these grieving families. That’s the headline that’s been blasted everywhere in the media.

But it’s important to clarify exactly what Meta is accused of, and what Mark Zuckerberg is apologizing for. 

Last summer, the Wall Street Journal reported that Instagram not only hosts child pornography, but also promotes child pornography through its algorithm. (This was a discovery that, incidentally, did not prompt any kind of sustained advertiser boycott from major corporations, unlike the time Elon Musk agreed with a post that criticized the A.D.L.). In any event, Instagram was exposed promoting some of the worst kind of content imaginable. As Ted Cruz demonstrated at yesterday’s hearing, Instagram didn’t even block child pornography that its algorithm had identified. Here’s how Mark Zuckerberg explained that:

Obviously, you don’t want to falsely censor someone for posting child pornography, when they’re not doing it. That part of Zuckerberg’s answer makes complete sense. And it’s understandable that maybe Instagram’s algorithm wasn’t perfect at identifying this kind of content on the fly. The problem for Instagram is that, for years, they refused to censor child pornography that was right out in the open. According to the Journal, users on Instagram could use hashtags like “preteensex” to find these materials. And the platform made no effort to shut that down. 

It was like Twitter before Elon Musk bought it, when that degenerate Yoel Roth was running things. At most, users would get this little dialogue box, which they could easily dismiss, even when there was no doubt what they were looking for.

To the extent that Zuckerberg was apologizing for anything at yesterday’s hearing, it was this flagrant disregard for the welfare of children — and possibly for the various federal laws against child pornography that his company may or may not have violated. And that apology is long overdue. That’s actually the least he could have done under these circumstances. 

But to be clear, Zuckerberg was not apologizing for the mental health effects of Instagram and Facebook. You may have heard that, but it’s not really true. We can be sure of this because, later on in the hearing, Zuckerberg denied that there’s any research showing that his products impair the mental well-being of young people. Watch:

This is the part of Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony that underscores why no one — and in particular no parent — should ever rely on Big Tech oligarchs, or U.S. senators for that matter, to safeguard their children on the Internet.

First of all, you don’t need to look at existing research to know that excessive social media use is bad for children. It’s common sense. You can tell intuitively that children who spend hours staring at a screen are going to suffer as a result. Our brains were not wired to scroll endlessly through social media feeds. And typically, when you do things that are extremely unnatural — especially when you’re a child, whose brain is constantly changing — then bad things happen. We don’t need research to tell us this because we all know it’s true.

Putting aside the actual content that kids are engaging with on the internet — ignoring the fact that much of the content is actively harmful and degrading, and worse — just the very fact that children are spending the majority of their waking hours staring at a little glowing rectangle is troubling enough on its own. If you went up to someone who didn’t know anything about the Internet — maybe someone who just came here through a time portal from 1920 — and you told them that the focal point of life for most children in our culture is a little screen, and they spend almost all of their time just staring at this screen, and they care about nothing as much as they care about the screen, that person would automatically recognize that this is a very bad development. No other information required. In fact, he would go back to his own time period in a panic, having learned that human beings 100 years in the future have become voluntarily zombified. No research required to know that this is bad. 

But in any event, we do have research, and a lot of it. Researchers have demonstrated a causal link between social media use and poor mental health outcomes. It’s not just correlation; it goes beyond that. Jonathan Haidt is one of the leading social psychologists in the country. He’s at NYU. Here’s how he responded yesterday: “Zuckerberg is wrong. There are now dozens of experiments showing causality. I laid out the evidence.”

Here’s some of that evidence. As psychology professor Jean Twenge has noted: “Teen pregnancy, crime, physical fights, and child poverty are all down since 2010, but teen depression doubled. It should have gone down — but it didn’t, because smartphones and social media led to social isolation & sleep deprivation.” 

It was in the year 2012 — the first year that a majority of children in this country possessed a smartphone — that teen mental health plummeted. Twenge looked at more than a dozen other possible explanations — from COVID to the economy — and none of them fully explained what was happening. Look at how stark the change was:

Jean Twenge: Percent of U.S. adolescents and adults with major depression in the last year, 2005-2021. Source: National Survey of Drug Use and Health. Retrieved from: AfterBabel.com. “Here are 13 Other Explanations for the Adolescent Mental Health Crisis. None of Them Work.”

Jean Twenge: Percent of U.S. adolescents and adults with major depression in the last year, 2005-2021. Source: National Survey of Drug Use and Health.

This chart shows the “percent of U.S. adolescents and adults with major depression in the last year, 2005-2021.” It’s from the National Survey of Drug Use and Health. As you’d expect, the graphs for the youth suicide rate look similar. As far as these researchers can tell, there’s no other serious alternative explanation for what’s happening here, except cellphone and social media use. That’s because this phenomenon happens all over the world, across varying economic conditions. Everywhere kids had cell phones, mental health declined. The same pattern played out in the five Nordic nations (Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Finland).

Of course, this doesn’t mean that other factors aren’t contributing in some way to the decline in mental health in this country. The number of Americans who go to church every week has dropped from 70 million in 2008 to 62 million in 2022, for example. That’s probably not helping, and obviously it’s not just happened because the iPhone was invented. There’s also the rise of victim culture in schools, which teaches young people that nothing is ever their fault. They’re always “oppressed,” at least if they can fit themselves within one of the ten million “oppressed” identities.

As Jean Twenge writes in her book “Monitoring the Future,” many more young people have an “external locus of control” as compared to the 1970s. That means they believe that they don’t have control over their lives, which is a feeling that leads to higher instances of depression and anxiety.

So this has been a trend for some time. But again, in the chart there, you see a massive spike around 2012, when most young people got smartphones for the first time. As far as arguments about correlation go, this one is pretty strong. But it gets stronger when you look at the evidence showing causation. And that evidence is mounting.

A recent study in JAMA Pediatrics for example found that regular social media use appears to change the brains of young people. It modifies how they respond to social cues. As the study states: “This cohort study examined whether early adolescents’ frequency of checking behaviors on 3 popular social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat) was associated with trajectories of functional brain development across adolescence. Adolescents who engaged in high (habitual) checking behaviors showed distinct neural trajectories when anticipating social feedback compared with those who engaged in moderate or low (non-habitual) checking behaviors, suggesting that habitual social media checking early in adolescence is associated with divergent brain development over time.”

The study goes on to state that researchers don’t yet know exactly what the effects of this “divergent brain development” might be, largely because this research is still relatively new. But it does appear, based on all the evidence we have, that social media use is rewiring the brains of young people. It causes development that is clearly unnatural and not fully understood. So, again: Common sense, historical trends, and medical research are all pointing in the same direction here. They’re all pointing to the conclusion that introducing kids to smartphones and social media could cause real and permanent damage.


Given that conclusion, the solution is obvious. Badgering Mark Zuckerberg at a hearing is never going to solve this problem. I’m all for having laws protecting kids — particularly when child sex trafficking and pornography are involved. But at a certain point parents need to be willing to do some actual parenting. Accountability here needs to begin not with one tech CEO, but with the millions of parents who give their kids devices with Internet access in the first place. According to the New York-Presbyterian health care system, 42% of kids these days have smartphones by age 10. And 91% have one by 14. That means almost all kids have phones at least two years before society has deemed them responsible enough to operate a vehicle.

There’s no conceivable valid reason why a 10-year-old needs a smartphone, especially when dumb phones that only call or text still exist and can be purchased easily. The underlying problem is that most of the parents are addicted to social media too, so they get their kids started on the habit so that it frees up more time for them to scroll on their own phones. That’s how the phones have taken over most households and become the focal points of most families. That is the root of the problem but of course, senators can’t subpoena millions of parents and yell at them. That wouldn’t make great television, in any event. So instead we demand performative apologies from tech billionaires for making the dangerous thing that we ourselves are willingly buying and handing to our children.

It’s a lot like handing your kid a cigarette while simultaneously ranting about the evils of the tobacco industry. In this case, it’s tempting to offload all of the blame to Mark Zuckerberg, as unlikable as he may be to many people. That’s probably why there was so much applause at yesterday’s hearing, as Zuckerberg was dressed down by Josh Hawley. But there is now clear evidence that children are suffering while this theater plays out in the Senate. They’re becoming more depressed, more addicted to drugs, less self-assured, and so reliant on smartphones that their brains are quite literally changing. The solution is not to bully Mark Zuckerberg, even though he’s maybe the easiest person on the planet to bully. The solution is something far simpler, but apparently quite radical these days. The solutions is for parents to be parents.

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