Media platforms

Social media platforms need to enforce more effective age restrictions

Children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of social media.

Gen Zers have had the unique experience of growing up with social media platforms, like Instagram, since the beginning of their lives. But how old are most users when they join these platforms? According to a survey conducted by Common Sense Media in 2016, 56% of children aged 8 to 18 in the United States have their own social media accounts. In addition, 23% of 8 to 12 year olds have their own account on social networks. How can this be? If social media platforms have age restrictions, prohibiting users under 13, how do so many children fall through the cracks?

Let me reflect on my personal experience of using social media at a young age to answer this question. I was in fifth grade when many of my classmates started downloading Instagram. At first, I was hesitant to create an account. But, as many victims of peer pressure can predict, I finally gave in and created a profile. It should have been impossible to create an account at 11, because Instagram requires users to be 13 or older. How could I make one easily? When I joined Instagram in 2014, it was incredibly easy to avoid their flimsy age restrictions and enter the anarchic world of social media. Perhaps the main hurdle for me was a checkbox that said I was at least 13 years old. These days, Instagram requires a full date of birth to create an account. While that’s more of a challenge than ticking a box, it’s still incredibly easy for kids to lie about their age.

Why is it a problem? Social media can be a great way for teens to stay in touch with friends and family, express themselves, and connect with their community. However, social media presents many potential dangers for users, especially those who are minors. High levels of social media use are linked to depression and anxiety in adolescents. Teenagers are at risk of being exposed to harmful and inappropriate content, such as sex, drugs and violence. Seeing this normalized and glamorized content on the Internet makes teenagers desensitized to harmful behaviors and ideologies. Teens who regularly use social media are more likely to be exposed to dangerous people and to be victims of cyberbullying, as well as to participate in alcohol consumption, drug use and the purchase of products tobacco. The comparison and approval-seeking mindset that social media cultivates is also likely to cause body image issues and low self-esteem.

The permanence of posts on social networks also has a noticeable impact on adolescents. It’s hard for young users to understand the lasting impact their actions on social media can have on their lives. Serving as a computerized history book, social media actions can be reminisced about years later. We’ve seen it countless times before when celebrities and politicians issue apologetic statements after old social media posts resurface and are used against them. How can a tween understand the potential consequences of their actions online? These impacts are harmful enough for users aged 13 and above, let alone those who are underage.

You might be wondering why a 13 year old can download Instagram but a 10 year old can’t. During these fundamental developmental years, there is a big difference in maturity and mental and emotional capacity to deal with the downsides of social media. Young children are far more impressionable than teenagers, and exposure to inappropriate content at a young age can pose a high safety risk and impact psychological development. This includes mental and emotional damage, negative behavioral changes, experimental use of alcohol or tobacco at a young age, and increased anxiety.

While age restrictions cannot make the problems associated with social media go away, they do mitigate some harm. Although age restrictions do not eliminate harmful effects on adolescents, they can prevent younger, more impressionable children from falling victim to these harms. To protect underage children, social media companies must enforce stricter policies. For example, companies could implement technology that recognizes underage users by identifying keywords indicating their age, such as birthday messages or shoutouts. Platforms could also introduce child-friendly versions of their app, which would be removed from accounts after the user turns 18 to ensure content is age-appropriate. The Instagram CEO has suggested a system where parents would put their child’s age on their child’s phone, instead of allowing apps to decipher their age. Age restrictions are a step in the right direction to keep children safe in a world where social media use begins at younger and younger ages. Until companies adopt stricter policies to deter underage users, young children are at risk of the adverse effects of social media on their well-being.

Molly Rudden is a second-year Philosophy, Politics and Law student.

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