Should children under 16 be banned from social media apps?

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, talks to Deseret News in Salt Lake City on Thursday. Stewart believes he has a solution to the adolescent mental health crisis: make it illegal for social media platforms to grant access to children under the age of 16. (Ryan Sun, Deseret News)

Estimated reading time: 6-7 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY – Tweens and teens spend as many as nine hours a day scrolling through social media, gaming, shopping online, video chatting and texting on their cell phones.

And a growing body of evidence suggests that all that screen time is taking a toll on their mental health.

“The statistics are clear: We have a generation of young people most upset, anxious, depressed and tragically suicidal than any generation in our history,” said Rep. Chris Stewart, who was recently named co-chair of the bipartisan mental health caucus in Congress.

The increase in anxiety and depression, he says, can be linked almost directly to when Facebook bought Instagram in 2012 and started marketing initially to girls and then to boys as young as 9. The Chinese app TikTok, he said, was designed as “emotional heroin”. “for youth.

“We just think we have to do something,” he said.

Stewart, a Republican, believes he has a solution to the adolescent mental health crisis: make it illegal for social media platforms to allow access to children under the age of 16. users.

The law would not displace parents’ decisions about their children’s use of social media, but help them avoid something harmful, he said.

“The government is involved in regulating when my kids can drink, when they can smoke, when they can drive,” Stewart said. “We believe that society has a responsibility to protect young people and that the government should help protect them.”

Since 2000, the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act has required websites and online services to obtain parental consent before collecting data from children under 13. But this law is rarely applied. Stewart’s bill would actually raise the age to 16.

Rep.  Chris Stewart, R-Utah, speaks during an interview discussing his proposed legislation to make it illegal for social media platforms for those under the age of 16 at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, speaks during an interview discussing his proposed legislation to make it illegal for social media platforms for those under the age of 16 at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday. (Photo: Ryan Sun, Deseret News)

Stewart said he expects social media companies to “hate this” but is willing to take their arrows “if we can do some good here”.

“They know that if they can get someone addicted to social media at age 9, they’ll have it for the rest of their lives,” he said.

Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, had no position on Monday on Stewart’s yet-to-be-submitted legislation, but pointed to steps it has taken to protect young people, including age-appropriate defaults, tools to customize encourage teens to spend time off Instagram and continue to bring age verification to the platform.

“We have the same goals as policy makers,” said Meta. “We’ve long advocated for clear industry standards on age verification and developing age-appropriate experiences.”

NetChoice, a technology industry group that includes Meta, Google, TikTok and Twitter, says education for both parents and children is the answer, not the “heavy-handed” government regulation Stewart proposes.

Such laws are not only unenforceable, but also violate the First Amendment, said Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel of NetChoice.

He also said there’s a reason Congress set the age at 13 in federal law. There is an emotional and social difference between a 13-year-old and a 15-year-old, who can normally drive a car, attend high school and become less dependent on parents.

“This is well-intentioned. I think parenting in the 21st century is incredibly challenging,” Szabo said of Stewart’s proposal. “Is there anything that can be done now? A hundred percent.’


We can’t just turn away from it. We can’t just ignore it. We can’t just pat them on the back and say “hey, you’ll feel better” and ignore it.

–Rep. Chris Stewart, Utah


Szabo pointed to lawmakers in Florida and Indiana considering making social media education mandatory in schools. The materials, he said, would be presented not only to children, but also to their parents.

“Let’s see how that goes first,” he said.

The better approach, Szabo said, is not to try to replace parents, as California has done with the Age-Appropriate Design Code Act.

California law is based on UK standards and requires the highest privacy settings to be enabled for minors by default. It also states that online services aimed at children under the age of 18 must assess the risk of harm to those users as a result of potentially harmful messages or exploitation. It will take effect in July 2024.

“California has come between parents and their teens,” Szabo said.

NetChoice sued California over the law, arguing that it violates the First Amendment. “There is a First Amendment right for teens. There is a First Amendment right for the Internet,” he said.

Stewart said his legislation has Democratic co-sponsors and that his initial talks with the White House were encouraging.

In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about major “abuses” of Big Tech last week, President Joe Biden said Democrats and Republicans can come to an agreement on protecting privacy, competition and children.

“Millions of young people struggle with bullying, violence, trauma and mental health. We must hold social media companies accountable for the experiment they conduct on our children for profit,” the president wrote.

Representative Chris Stewart believes he has a solution to the adolescent mental health crisis: make it illegal for social media platforms to allow access to children under the age of 16.
Representative Chris Stewart believes he has a solution to the adolescent mental health crisis: make it illegal for social media platforms to allow access to children under the age of 16. (Photo: Richard Drew, Associated Press)

A survey by the Pew Research Center found that 95% of 13-17 year olds have access to a smartphone.

Between 2009 and 2017, the number of eighth graders who use social media daily increased from 46% to 78%, and the time high school students spent online doubled. Common Sense Media estimates that by 2021, kids ages 8 to 12 will be spending five and a half hours a day on screens, and teens ages 13 to 18 will spend nearly nine hours a day, according to research compiled by the Institute for Family Studies and the Wheatley Institute at Brigham Young University.

A study from the two institutes found that teens who spend more than eight hours a day on screen time are about twice as likely to become depressed as their peers who spend less time on screens.

According to University of Virginia sociologist Brad Wilcox, a fellow of the Institute for Family Studies and the American Enterprise Institute, anxiety, depression and suicide among teens, especially among girls, have surged over the past decade since the mass adoption of smartphones around 2010. and Riley Peterson, a bachelor’s degree in religion and sociology from Baylor University.

Depression has more than doubled, from 12% in 2010 to 26% today for teenage girls. Emergency room visits for self-inflicted injuries nearly doubled in the same period, again for teenage girls. And teenage suicide among girls has risen to a 40-year high, Wilcox and Riley wrote in a recent piece in Deseret News.

“We can’t just turn away from it. We can’t just ignore it. We can’t just pat them on the back and say ‘hey, you’ll feel better’ and ignore it,” Stewart said.

Stewart’s bill would give states the power to bring a civil suit on behalf of its residents if a social media platform breaks the rules. It also gives parents the right to sue on behalf of their children. It allows the Federal Trade Commission to impose fines for violations.

Seattle public schools recently sued the companies behind Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube, claiming the platforms are largely responsible for a major decline in youth mental health.

Szabo said there’s a simple reason the social-emotional state of not just teens, but all Americans is at an all-time low. “It just happens to have to do with being cooped up in our homes for two years,” he said, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic. “That seems to have been brushed off by hand.”

The only lifeline kids had was through technology, he said.

“It seems silly to put the blame on technology, even if it seems like an easy answer,” Szabo said. “Society goes through this every time we have a new technology.”

Latest stories about congressional delegations in Utah

Dennis Roboy

Dennis Romboy is an editor and reporter for Deseret News. He has covered a variety of beats over the years, including state and local government, social issues and courts. Born in Utah, Romboy earned a degree in journalism from the University of Utah. He enjoys cycling, snowboarding and running.

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Should children under 16 be banned from social media apps?

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