Republicans nationwide have recently taken up the mantle of “parental rights,” arguing that their kids shouldn’t be exposed to progressive ideas about race and LGBT issues in schools against their wishes. While these issues can be complicated, I largely agree that parents know their kids best and should be given wide latitude to raise them as they see fit.
Yet some “conservative” Republican Karens down in Texas want to throw out that whole “parental rights” thing because they can’t be bothered to actually teach their kids how to use social media within limits. (“Karen” is social media slang that refers to bossy, meddling people who believe in using the police to force people into behaviors they find acceptable.)
That’s right: There’s a push emerging in conservative circles in the Lone Star State to have the state government ban minors from using social media.
(Whiting is the senior technology fellow for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an organization that largely does good work to promote free markets and limited government but apparently decided to hit the Communist crack pipe on this front. Ironically, Whiting’s bio touts his work as a state senator to “protect personal liberties” and “reduce the size and scope of government.”)
This idea is gaining traction among some Texas lawmakers. State Rep. Jared Patterson, who describes himself as a “champion for individual liberty,” shared The Cannon’s article and said, “I agree, and I’ll be introducing legislation next session to ban minors from using social media.”
I agree, and I'll be introducing legislation next session to ban minors from using social media.
It's long past time to recognize the incredible harm social media is doing to the mental health of young Texans. Next session, we put an end to it.
— Rep. Jared Patterson (@JaredLPatterson) July 5, 2022
“It’s long past time to recognize the incredible harm social media is doing to the mental health of young Texans,” Jared Patterson added. “Next session, we put an end to it.”
With this argument gaining traction more broadly, it’s worth taking seriously—and explaining just why it’s so absolutely detached from reality.
Whiting’s article begins with some emotional, tragic anecdotes about teenagers being (in his telling) hurt by social media:
“A young girl named Alexis started using social media when she was 11 and was barraged with videos about body image, eating disorders, and cutting. She developed a social media addiction, anorexia, harmed herself, and contemplated suicide. Samantha was sucked into an algorithmically fueled rabbit hole about rare diseases which she increasingly became convinced she had and began self-diagnosing herself with borderline-personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and multiple-personality disorder. CJ and Ian committed suicide while using social media. Olly was murdered in an ambush that was ‘planned on social media and triggered by a dispute in a social media chat group.’”
These are all, without a doubt, sad stories and tragic outcomes. But the attempt to pin the blame on social media companies is downright bizarre for some of these incidents.
For example, the suicides referenced are clearly rooted in much deeper issues than Instagram usage. Social media addiction was most likely a symptom of the underlying mental health challenges they were experiencing, not the direct and proximate cause of suicide itself. There are millions of teenagers who use social media and never contemplate, let alone attempt, suicide.
So, too, the attempt to blame social media for a literal murder is downright absurd. Crimes are also planned via text message—shall we start charging AT&T executives as accessories to murder? Or banning cell phones? What about email? And are we supposed to believe that this kind of thing only happens because social media group chats exist?
The entire premise here is faulty.
Does Social Media Actually Cause Mental Health Problems for Teens?
It’s not at all clear from the relevant data and research that social media use actually causes mental health problems among teenagers. (Correlation does not equal causation, and Whiting just cites one study suggesting correlation as his evidence.)
Meanwhile, Reason’s Robby Soave does a deep dive into the research on this question in his fantastic book, Tech Panic: Why We Shouldn’t Fear Facebook and the Future, and pours cold water on this alarmist narrative.
Soave explains, “While screen addiction may seem like the cause of kids’ increasing mental anxiety, researchers have not established such a connection.” He cites multiple experts and literature reviews disputing the causal narrative pushed by alarmists like Whiting.
Some data even suggest positive effects of social media. Soave summarizes one fascinating survey:
“12th-graders who reported a moderate amount of social media use—six to nine hours a week—were least likely to describe themselves as unhappy, according to survey data. Teens who were truly addicted to their phones (that is, those spending 40-plus hours on them per week) had poorer happiness levels, but kids who never used social media were the unhappiest of all.”
None of this is to say that excessive social media never has negative effects on teens. It may very well have some harmful impacts on some young people. (Interestingly, the data show much more evidence for social media being harmful for teenage girls than boys, which suggests the problem isn’t the technology itself but how it’s sometimes used to promote social pressures and unrealistic image standards).
But the alarmist narrative from ban-happy Republican Karens that suggests social media is responsible for suicides and murders has little relation to reality.
Even Conservatives With Concerns About Social Media Shouldn’t Support Bans
Even if one is concerned about the impact social media has on teens, a very reasonable concern, it’s still an enormous leap to jump to the government banning it outright for minors.
“A state-driven social media ban on minors is the most effective way to protect kids from the harms of social media,” Whiting’s article concludes. “Anything short accepts the premise that social media is not that bad. It is that bad.”
Actually, one can reject the argument that the government needs to ban social media for minors and still think social media is “that bad” for children. Typically it’s progressives and socialists who argue that if a problem exists, only the government can solve it. Conservatives are supposed to understand that parents can handle these problems better than bureaucrats and politicians and know their kids’ needs and circumstances best.
A top-down, one-size-fits-all ban strips parents of their basic rights and hurts the many kids who are benefiting from its use and not experiencing negative mental health impacts.
As Soave explains, social media has major positives that must also be considered:
“If there is a problem and smartphones are part of it, the downsides must still be weighed against the benefits, which are considerable. While it’s fine to worry about teens becoming depressed and isolated—and perpetually at home—there are tradeoffs. Teens that increasingly socialize with their friends via apps, for instance, are less likely to drive home drunk, smoke, have premarital sex, or experience unwanted pregnancies.”
Who are you to say what’s best for another family’s children, Karen? If your kids are having issues with social media, you should try parenting them yourselves, not calling your state representative. As Soave puts it:
“Can anything be done to combat some of the actual problems with tech addiction? Yes, but the answer isn’t easy or flashy: It’s for parents to exercise greater responsibility, talk to their kids about how much they rely on their phones, and set reasonable limits on screen time. In practice, this is no different from setting limits on TV or video game time. Though the devices in question are portable, the principle is the same.”
Any Attempted Ban Also Would Fail Hilariously
It’s also worth noting that any attempt by Texas lawmakers to actually implement this kind of ban would fail immediately and in hilarious fashion. Yes, the state government could impose via regulation an age verification requirement on social media companies so they have to verify a Texas user’s age before allowing them to use the app.
But all a teen would have to do is roll their eyes, turn on their VPN, and set their location to any other state. Teenagers already regularly do this to circumvent Netflix and YouTube restrictions on content that’s supposed to only be available in certain countries. So, with one “OK Boomer” and a few swipes of a thumb, your typical teen will be back on Instagram before the ink is dry on the legislation “banning” them from social media.
This Push is Remarkably Short-Sighted
Yet whether it works or not, establishing more precedent for Big Government to intrude into families and infringe on parental rights is not going to end well for social conservatives, the crowd pushing these bans in Texas.
Religious and traditionalist social values are on the decline in America. So, if Texas Republicans want to be able to raise their families as they see fit (something I certainly support) further opening the door to voters making parenting decisions is remarkably short-sighted.
The proposals to ban teens from social media will probably not become law any time soon. But if they do, they won’t just accomplish absolutely nothing. They’ll backfire spectacularly—and make Texas Republicans rue the day they caved to their Karen impulses.
Interested in this subject? Buy Robby Soave’s book, Tech Panic: Why We Shouldn’t Fear Facebook and the Future, on Amazon or wherever you buy your books.