Jean Guerrero: Smartphones take a toll on teenagers. What choice do parents have?

From the commentary: For now, parents have no choice but to do the best they can to protect children based on insights from experts and researchers.

The Kids Online Safety Act aims to restrict harmful content that social media companies are pumping at children.
The Kids Online Safety Act aims to restrict harmful content that social media companies are pumping at children.

We can't keep ignoring social media's harmful effects on the mental health of young people.

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Across the world, regardless of skin color or language, people are suffering from mental health problems that are linked to the age at which they got their first smartphone or tablet, according to a new report from Sapien Labs. The nonprofit organization, which has a database of more than a million people in dozens of countries, found that the younger that people were when they got their first smartphone or tablet, the more likely they were to have mental health challenges as adults, including suicidal thoughts, a sense of being detached from reality and feelings of aggression toward others.

The effects were most pronounced among girls, who spend more time on social media than boys do. The harm of the devices seems to be rooted in the 24/7 access they provide to social media.

The longer that parents wait to give children portable digital devices, the better. Respondents who got their first smartphones or tablets in their later teens had a much stronger sense of self and ability to relate to others.

The study is the most recent piece of evidence that social media may be contributing to a global mental health crisis. While some studies show more complicated and even contradictory effects of platforms, with vulnerability differing from child to child, we can't afford to ignore the obvious: They're designed to keep people online as long as possible, regardless of the cost. Algorithms serve up to young users content that can distort their body image, such as extreme dieting messages and pro-anorexia accounts. They promote videos that can push teens to physically harm themselves or other people .


"They don't show you what you want to see — they show you what you can't look away from," Matthew Bergman, founder of the Social Media Victims Law Center, told me. "Psychologically discordant material triggers greater dopamine response than benign material. By definition, the algorithm is going to lead people down rabbit holes of more and more extreme content."

Screen time also displaces in-person interactions and hinders learning social skills, which take real-world practice. As the Sapien report notes: "Social behavior is complex; it involves reading and decoding nuances in facial expression, body language, tone of voice, touch, and even olfactory cues to infer intent, establish connection, and build trust." Much of that gets lost on social media.

But despite growing awareness about the harms of these platforms, many parents buy smartphones for their kids to prevent them from feeling left out or being left behind by their classmates. "Parents have this really awful lose-lose tradeoff of maximizing safety for their children on the one hand, or putting them at what is a very clear social detriment," Marc Berkman, CEO of the L.A.-based nonprofit Organization for Social Media Safety, told me.

His group seeks to eliminate the trade-off by working with individual schools and school districts to create a "community approach," in which parents decide how old their kids will need to be before buying them smartphones. That way, no student ends up the outcast.

It's a great idea, and there are other things that parents can do as legislation crawls through Congress and state legislatures. They can use parental controls or purchase flip phones or Gabb phones that have no internet connection. They can advocate for their schools to make their classrooms smartphone-free spaces.

Regulating social media platforms is one of the rare issues with bipartisan support, but figuring out the best route has been difficult. For example, the Kids Online Safety Act , introduced this month by Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), aims to restrict harmful content that social media companies are pumping at children. But some civil rights advocates worry that it could lead to censorship of content related to race, gender and sexuality.

Then there's the bipartisan Kids Act , which would exclude kids under 16 from access to addiction-fueling autoplay features and push alerts. There's also the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act that aims to ban all social media for minors under age 13 and require parental permission for children between ages 13 and 17.

A 1998 privacy law already forbids companies from collecting personal information from children younger than 13 without the consent of their parents. But social media platforms rely on users to self-certify their age. A recent survey found that nearly 40% of children ages 8-12 use social media. Raising the minimum age of use to 16 or older might help. But some experts worry that stricter age verification standards could come at the expense of everyone's privacy.


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In the meantime, states are taking things into their own hands. On Wednesday, Montana banned TikTok , effective as of 2024, more for privacy reasons than effects on teen users. In March, Utah passed laws that limit how children can use social media, with their well-being in mind. Arkansas, Texas and other states are working on proposals. Last year, California passed a law requiring online platforms to have default privacy and safety settings for children, but actual guidelines won't be set until a working group delivers recommendations next January.

For now, parents have no choice but to do the best they can to protect children based on insights from experts and researchers. Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University psychology professor and author of "Generations," told me the latest study offers a response to a question she hadn't seen answered: "Does it make a difference when my child gets his or her first smartphone?" The answer is yes. With each year that parents delay buying such devices for their children, they're giving those children a better shot at surviving their toxic effects.

Linking arms with other parents will make it easier for everyone. But parents can't solve this crisis on their own. Lawmakers must act, and there's no time to waste.

Jean Guerrero is an opinion columnist at the Los Angeles Times. This commentary is the columnist's opinion. Send feedback to:

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