Screen Time

The Case Against Social Media Bans — And A Better Way Forward For Kids

Mitchell Prinstein, PhD., the American Psychological Association’s Chief Science Officer, discusses Utah’s social media ban — and what parents should consider when it comes to kids and screens.

Originally Published: 
Ariela Basson/Fatherly; Stocksy, Shutterstock, Getty Images

Last month, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed two bills into law that will effectively ban kids in the state from being able to access social media. The first bans kids younger than 18 from using social media unless their parents consent, will give parents unfettered access to their kids’ social media profiles, and will kick kids offline from 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. The second will require social media companies to stop using techniques that could give under-18s an “addiction” to the platforms. Both laws, collectively known as S.B. 152, will take effect in March of 2024.

While it’s tempting to look longingly at this legislation, such a ban, which will require kids to upload a state ID to prove their age in order to log on, is extreme.

For one, free speech advocates note that many people, even those over the age of 18, don’t have state IDs. And Mitchell Prinstein, Ph.D., the Chief Science Officer of the American Psychological Association (APA), thinks that bans like that be “too blunt a response given the more nuanced findings that are coming from the scientific community.”

In his role as CSO, Prinstein acts as the tip of the spear for the AAP’s science agenda and advocates for more psychological research and knowledge in various sectors. A former professor of psychology and neuroscience at UNC and the author of more than 150 papers and nine books, Prinstein is also the father of two young boys — aged 10 and 12 — which makes the issue of social media one that hits close to home.

Prinstein is glad that people are starting to pay attention to “all the ways that social media might be conferring potential harm” on kids. But — crucially — he thinks that an all-out ban on social media for those under 18 may be “too blunt of a response given the more nuanced findings that are coming from the scientific community.” Instead, Prinstein wants to share learnings so parents can “make a decision that fits their own family, that fits their own kids' strengths and weaknesses.”

Fatherly spoke with Prinstein about his concerns about the Utah ban, the dangers of social media for kids, the screen time rules he sets for his own children, and why parents should strongly consider getting a dumb phone.

From the perspective of even the most open-minded parents, when these laws happen, there’s maybe a sense of relief because social media can be so challenging for kids. How do you feel about bills like S.B. 152 that greatly restrict kids from social media platforms?

You know, it’s funny. The pendulum has swung in our conversations about social media in just the last year or so. I’m very glad that we are starting to pay attention to all of the ways that social media might be conferring potential harm or at least giving us opportunities for questioning the effects on kids. But we have to remember that social media is also associated with psychological benefits for some kids. So an all-out ban for all kids below 18 may be too blunt a response given the more nuanced findings that are coming from the scientific community.

What would be a more appropriate response to the harms of social media, given the fact that there are some benefits for kids?

I think we need to give parents and kids the knowledge of what we’re learning so far so they can make a decision that fits their own family, that fits their own kids’ strengths and weaknesses.

Certainly, content that is remarkably inappropriate for kids — such as content that’s teaching them how to engage in psychologically disordered behavior and conceal it from their parents, content that is containing discrimination and hate — we should probably have protections to shield kids from that kind of content.

I think we have to be aware that these platforms were developed with adults in mind. Kids have developing brains that render them more vulnerable to some of the features in social media, like the “like” button, machine learning, and algorithms.

What do you mean?

Most kids are going to have an overdeveloped sense of social sensitivity before they have a fully developed self-control system, just based on the order in which brain regions maturate. So we have to be careful to recognize that the combination of the “like” button and some of the machine learning and AI is going to prey on biological vulnerabilities that kids have, that adults are less likely to have. We’ve got to create a version of social media that doesn’t capitalize on the immaturity of their neural development.

We’ve got to create a version of social media that doesn’t capitalize on the immaturity of their neural development.

That feels potentially harmful and concerning for kids. But also, there are some kids that don’t have a safe opportunity to find support, health information, or companionship within their home environment, or within their local in-real-life community. And social media does provide an opportunity for some of those kids to be able to get the information they need, find support, and find relief in ways where their privacy [is honored] and their opportunity to get information can be really helpful to them.

You said we need to give parents and kids more information in terms of what we are learning about social media. What are some learnings that are important to understand?

We’re learning that it’s not about how much time you’re spending on social media that’s the concern; it’s about what specific content you’re seeing on social media and the way that you’re interacting with the functions of social media.

If kids are going on there to engage, to do mostly direct messaging, to talk about what they’ve learned in the news, and to establish close supportive relationships with friends, then it’s fine. But if they’re being driven by a desire to pay attention to their “likes” and their followers and see more and more machine-generated recommendations for content, that’s probably more concerning.

And some kids are going to react very differently to what they see than others. There are some kids that are more resilient, and there are some kids more at risk. Teen and tween girls who are very concerned about their body shape — because of our society’s remarkable socialized pressure on a girl’s physical appearance — who are then directed through machine learning to chat rooms and websites that encourage them to engage in weight-related behaviors like anorexia, that’s obviously much more concerning.

Those are some major concerns. Are there any others you think are crucial to remember?

We’re also learning that there are ways that social media is interrupting sleep. This is really scary. Getting a sufficient amount of sleep is very important for the size of kids’ brain growth in adolescence.

The potential for problematic social media use is also something we’re really concerned about in science. We’re concerned about exposure to harsher discrimination online than kids are experiencing offline.

There’s science demonstrating that the “like” feature creates, among adults and kids but especially kids, a tendency to misunderstand or erroneously estimate what other people around you think about things. So [if] you see 10 people comment with something that feels completely counter to your own worldview, rather than saying “Oh, there must be 10 unique people out there,” you start thinking “Oh, my God, the whole world must feel that way or half the country feels that way.” That creates polarization and a feeling of echo chambers and so on.

Dads and moms need to recognize that their kids are carefully observing how much parents are spending time on their devices and how much parents are talking about their own social media feeds.

Many experts argue that the best way for kids to use the Internet is alongside their parents. S.B. 152 grants parents access to their kids’ social media accounts up to age 18 — an act that can be done with or without being with your kid. What do you think about that aspect of the bill, given that there’s a huge difference between kids using the Internet at 9 and, say, 16?

I think that some kids need to have privacy in what they want to discuss, even from their parents. [Especially] if they feel they’re in an environment that won’t be accepting of exploration of their identity or wanting to learn about health information related to any kind of adolescent risk behavior.

But I’m a father of a 10- and a 12-year-old right now. Dads and moms need to recognize that their kids are carefully observing how much parents are spending time on their devices and how much parents are talking about their own social media feeds. That becomes a remarkably powerful way to socialize kids into exactly the kinds of attitudes and behaviors that kids will eventually have about their own tech and social media use.

Kids learn a lot from watching their parents.

Yes. There's a concept in the psychological literature called technoference — it’s the extent to which parents using their own devices interrupt their family interactions. Kids are very sensitive to that. They notice that they’re not able to compete with their parents’ phones for their attention.

And it really teaches kids that they should consider their eventual relationships with their phones as being more important than their relationships with their parents because that’s what they saw happen to them or that they should be very, very excited about getting lots of activity on their feed when they hear their parents do the exact same thing themselves. So every time we give a talk on this about the research on kids, we have a lot of parents saying “Uh oh, I think this all is relevant to me too, and I should probably be changing what I do in front of my kids.” And we’re like, “Yeah, exactly.”

You argue that there are competencies and skills that kids should have before parents let them onto social media. What are they?

Kids should understand how mis- and disinformation campaigns work. Kids should understand that there’s a natural human tendency to believe what we see and the skill that it takes to override that with healthy questioning about whether what we’re seeing is an accurate and representative portrayal of information that’s out there. Whether it’s how their friend looks, or how headlines are being discussed, or even how many people seem to have liked to post when it might not have even been humans at all. It could have been a bot. Just a healthy questioning of how to engage with the information that they see online in a way that invites questioning, debate, and thoughtfulness.

If you were building this platform with child development in mind, you could do amazing things with it. But if you’re basically just saying “Well, whatever we built for adults is going to apply to kids the same way,” science says that’s completely wrong.

If you were building this platform with child development in mind, you could do amazing things with it.

You’re a dad. What do you do at home, screen-wise? What rules have you set?

First of all, we very carefully model for our kids the values that we believe are more important than things like followers, retweets, and status.

I wrote a book about the difference between status and likability a few years back. We talk about how social media led to us all being interested in power and dominance, followers and influence. Social media quantifies that for us.

We really teach our kids to value community, inclusion, connection, sharing your emotions, and fun experiences with others. So, hopefully, when they have the opportunity to interact through a device with people, they’re doing it in a way that fosters those qualities in our relationships rather than “how do I get the most followers possible?”

That’s really important.

Second, we’re pretty careful about using our devices in front of the kids. If we do it, we often will apologize, and explain why it was more important to respond to a text at that moment than to pay attention to what was happening in real life. We provide a social norm for that.

The third thing we do is try and practice mindful social media use. As a practice, it sounds fancier than it is; it’s just quite simply recognizing that there are a lot of powerful forces trying to keep us on social media for longer than might be necessary.

So just think for a millisecond before you log on: “What’s my intention? How long do I really want to go on? And what’s the point of me going on? Am I just trying to get through my notifications, check what’s trending, and then I’m done?”

That way, if you find yourself 15 minutes later just mindlessly scrolling, it kind of pops back in your head: “Wait a minute. No, I only meant to do this for 10 minutes, and I’ve already cleared my notifications. Let me shut it off.”

For you as a parent, is there an age your kids will hit when you think, “OK, this is OK. I can give them a phone. I can give them some social media access”? Or is it simply as late as possible? What is that approach for you?

We are going for as late as possible. Our kids do have access to a device that they can use with tremendous screen time controls and protections and content protections that we put on there. And they can only do it at home, under our direct supervision. We do not have the intention to give them a device they can use freely. And by freely, I mean outside of our protection and outside of our home. We’re waiting for as long as possible.

Because the fact is our kids are not on any social media platforms at all. They have educational apps that are designed to help them learn and experience things and be creative, and that’s fine. And they can text, but they are not on any social media platforms. Nothing where AI is involved.

Smartphones have changed so much about how kids interact with social media. Not so long ago, it was all on a computer — now, for kids, the world is in their pocket.

I do think it’s worth parents considering a dumb phone rather than a smartphone, or a smartphone that allows the use of a phone app but very careful management of screen time for the other apps for communication that’s not emergency or directly a necessity. Because like you say, it’s just too much.

The other piece of this that I think is so important is that a lot of parents usually will give in and give their kids a phone because they’re afraid that their kid will be the only one not on these social networks, and that they’ll suffer social consequences.

A lot of the 20-year-olds in our undergraduate classes tell us “I wish my parents had not given me a phone when I was 12, despite my pleading for one, because now I find myself having a lot of difficulties with it, and I wish that my parents had held out longer despite my pleading.” I don’t think parents hear that enough.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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