Will banning minors from social media break the internet?

Charles C. W. Cooke seems to think so. Cooke, a writer for National Review whose opinions and style I have great respect for, opines in the April 2024 issue that using Federal power to keep minors off social media is a bad idea.

He concedes there is a real problem: bullying, pornography use, depression, and suicide are all results of teenagers and even younger people accessing social media. He doesn't dispute that, on balance, the harm that can happen is probably not worth the benefits that the youngsters gain. The problem is acute enough to show up in strange places such as the comics page.

The strip "Baldo" by Hector Cantú and Carlos Castellanos portrays a nearly-nuclear Hispanic family that includes a precocious young girl named Gracie, who appears to be about 8.

Recently, the writers chose to show Gracie taking out a cigarette lighter, lighting up, taking a puff, and in the last frame, she had a mobile phone in her hand instead of a cigarette. The message, somewhat crudely but shockingly expressed, is that if you hand your eight-year-old a mobile phone, you might as well let her smoke, too.

The comparison between smoking and mobile-phone-mediated social media is apt in another way. The social ostracism that many smokers now experience, at least in the US, came about as the US government adopted severe restrictions on cigarette advertising and sales. It's somewhat of a chicken-and-egg argument as to whether federal restrictions encouraged the change in social attitude, or the social attitude made the government's job easier.

But as the hypocrisy of the cigarette companies was exposed, revealing that they knew very well tobacco killed their customers but went right on selling it as though nothing was wrong, I think public opinion simply turned against them, especially among young people. Yet, the federal strictures helped the process along.


Cooke's main concern is that allowing the federal government to get its grubby, incompetent mitts on what is up to now almost a perfect example of the unrestricted free market of the Internet will ruin it for everybody. He thinks that if we let the camel of government regulation of age for using the Internet get its head under the tent, the rest of the smelly animal will come too, and politicians will find some way to prevent their political opponents from accessing voters under the age of 90, or something.

Now, I'll agree that the ingenuity of bureaucrats to expand their remits beyond all reasonable bounds is impressive and worth being concerned about. But I haven't noticed any huge federal bureaucracy springing up around the subject of restricting tobacco use, unless you count the diversion of the huge pile of money extracted from the tobacco companies as part of class-action lawsuits by smokers toward uses that have nothing to do with smoking prevention. And that was mainly the doing of states rather than the federal government, if I recall correctly.

Cooke says if the federal laws proposed go into action, you would have to send your private information over the Internet every time you want to access YouTube or Facebook. Well, I do that every time I buy something online already — not only that, I send information that will allow a crook to steal from me, and now and then, it even happens. But the banks are vigilant enough to keep credit-card fraud down to a level that seems to be tolerable enough for most people, and we haven't had some giant federal bureaucracy arise because of it.


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I agree that it may be premature to enact a federal law in this area. However, many states are currently experimenting with similar laws, and several have already gained some experience with them. Some reports indicate that major porn outlets on the Internet are seeing their income drop substantially. One report cited by the website of the Southern Baptist Convention says that as a result of an age restriction passed in Louisiana, traffic to the site Pornhub from that state has dropped by 80 percent.

That may seem like a drop in the bucket, but one of the strengths of the federal system is that each state is a little political science lab of its own. After another year or two, federal legislators, if they are so inclined, can take a look at the many experiments in social-media regulation concerning minors that are going on right now, and take the best ideas from the successful ones.

Then, it shouldn't be that hard to craft a law that would not only restrict social-media companies from preying on minors, but would also restrict the role of the federal government in the regulatory process. Senator Josh Hawley's proposed bill, nicknamed MATURE (for Making Age-Verification Technology Uniform, Robust, and Effective), would have as its primary regulatory feature the power granted to parents to sue Internet companies who don't comply. In that aspect, it resembles the Texas anti-abortion law, which empowers private citizens to sue abortionists. No giant abortion-regulation bureaucracy sprang up in Texas after that law was passed. But a lot of abortion clinics shut down immediately, which was the desired effect.


Cooke says that he is going to take the steps available to a responsible parent, which he is, to ensure that his own children don't get harmed by social media. And that is fine if you are a responsible parent. But we have plenty of irresponsible parents too, and we should have some concern for their children, who are even more vulnerable to the harms that social media can cause than the offspring of parents who are aware of the dangers and do something about them.

Cooke seems to be motivated by a libertarian impulse to leave the pristine unregulated nature of the Internet alone. But as he points out, we have already seen inappropriate involvement of the government in censoring free expression on the Internet by means of the Twitter files released by Elon Musk's intervention. And nobody passed any laws to let that happen.

Granted that there is currently a shortage of wisdom in Washington, we can still hope that a few public-spirited Republicans and Democrats can cooperate (!) on a bill that would take into account the successes and failures of various state laws in this area, make sure that any Federal involvement in the matter is minimised, and still accomplish the goal: to keep children and teenagers from suffering the very real psychic harm that social media overuse and misuse can cause.

What is the best way to regulate internet use by minors? Leave your suggestions in the comments box below. 

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.

Image: Pexels


Showing 5 reactions

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  • David Page
    commented 2024-03-17 11:37:54 +1100
    Who cares?
  • Roger Symes
    commented 2024-03-17 07:25:28 +1100
    To “online chat rooms and computer games” I should add “social media”.
  • Roger Symes
    commented 2024-03-15 08:29:41 +1100
    A continuum of online evil is swallowing up the young and not-so-young. Some of its more obvious aspects are pornography, sexual grooming and a social contagion of gender dysphoria. Less written about but more insidious is a dissipated sense of self in online chat rooms and computer games. Even where deviant radicalisation is not involved, this is the thin edge of a wedge that would split us from ourselves and from God.

    A friend’s only child is struggling with her mental health. After graduating from university, she moved in with a young man she met on Tinder. When her dad became seriously ill, she moved back home to be with him. She stopped looking for work during the covid lockdowns and started spending her days and nights in online chat rooms. My friend and his wife are splitting up, partly due to arguments over how to help their daughter.

    The word “devil” shares a Latin root with “diabolical” meaning “to tear apart.” This continuum of evil would tear us from grace and one another. Our sense of self is being dissipated in virtual reality, damaging our mental health and rippling to rending asunder our real-world relationships. A concerted effort is needed at all levels, starting with parents and the young people themselves, through education, to stem this plague.
  • mrscracker
    “What is the best way to regulate internet use by minors?”
    Parents are the ones who purchase smartphones for their young children. To stop the harm to children you have to begin with the source: parents.
  • Karl D. Stephan
    published this page in The Latest 2024-03-14 21:15:25 +1100