The Simple Social Media Fix That Could Battle the Child Mental Health Crisis

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Many of us warned, when the country was locked down after COVID-19 that it would have a devastating effect not only on the economy but also on mental wellbeing.

I was aware that it would have an impact on children who were not allowed to attend school. It was obvious that the government and teachers’ unions would conspire to close schools, as children and teens thrive off social interaction. Randi Weingarten was never held accountable for her actions towards our children and she probably won’t be. Their mental health has suffered as a result.

It’s in The Atlantic. I’ve quoted it before to show how bad the situation has gotten. The article was published in 2022 but still holds.

In the first half of 2021, a government survey of nearly 8,000 high school students found that mental health varied greatly among groups. Over one-fourth of girls said they seriously considered suicide during the pandemic. This is twice as many as boys. Nearly half (48%) of LGBTQ teens admitted to having seriously considered suicide during the pandemic. This is compared to 14% of heterosexual teens. The sadness among white teens is rising faster than in other groups.

The big picture, however, is that mental health for all teens is worsening. This is happening across the nation. Since 2009, the sadness and hopelessness of teens has increased across all demographics: straight teens, gay teens, teens who have never had sex, or those who claim to have had sex both with men and women. This is true for students in every year of high school and all 50 US states.

Over a year, our kids were isolated at home and denied intellectual, social, and emotional growth. Some kids returned to school sooner than others but the effects were similar for most. The pandemic was not as bad for students as isolation.

The pandemic has only recently exacerbated an existing problem. The mental health crisis began in 2012 when, as The Atlantic’s author points out, we saw the first 50 percent of Americans with smartphones and social media started its explosive rise.

We are still figuring out how to handle this. Congress has been wrestling with this issue. So, I did some digging.

TikTok is the most popular app among kids. The kids make up a large percentage of all three apps’ user bases. The endless scrolling of TikTok or Instagram is appealing, as algorithms can use your history to determine what you’d like to see. Social media algorithms can be easily adapted to suit your preferences, so kids get to see what they like.

Another aspect, that I believe is more harmful, is social media following. Content creators who have a large number of followers start to imitate their actions, even when it is sexualized or harmful. Age verification is increasingly important for these apps. I believe there’s an easy way to reduce a lot of the clout-chasing on social media.

Meta, Snap, ByteDance, and other social media platforms can do the right thing by putting a cap on the number of followers for accounts underage. When you reach 18 years of age, your limit can be increased. You’re only allowed to follow a limited number of accounts until you turn 18. Social media algorithms must also be prohibited from suggesting that others follow these accounts, whether or not the child has put their age in their profile.

This does not inhibit growth on the app, it does not inch closer to any First Amendment concerns people might have, and it dissuades attention-seeking/clout-chasing behavior that serves as a distraction at best and a gateway to unhealthy practices at worst.

Health and Human Services Department of the United States has concluded, “We cannot conclude that social media is safe enough for children and teenagers.” I agree. Over the years, I’ve observed social media contribute to the mental health decline of my students. I observed how the majority of users on these apps encouraged online bullying, sexualized behavior, and dangerous stunts, and that some students were willing to do anything for the sake of a larger following.

Although I’d love to see social media companies take the initiative to reduce the number of users who are underage and stop their algorithms from recommending them, I wouldn’t mind if Congress passed a law. This would be an excellent first step to tackling social media’s grip on our children.