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Kids Have Rights Too!

Kids Have Rights Too!


Talk about closing the barn door after all the horses are romping through the fields!

According to news reports, a bipartisan group of Senators have introduced a bill, Protecting Kids on Social Media Act, establishing a minimum age for most social media use. Children under age 13 would be prohibited from creating accounts or interacting with other users on popular sites like Facebook, TikTok, Instagram and other platforms. Young adults between ages 13 and 18 could engage with these platforms, but only wth explicit parental permission.

According to Common Sense Media, 42 percent of kids have a phone by age 10. By age 12, it’s 71 percent. By 14, it’s 91 percent. Even that report may underestimate the ubiquity of smartphones. And, as I know all too well, they’re not primarily using them to call grandparents.

The “barn door” aspect of this issue is a less-grim parallel to the tragic reality of gun violence in America, where the presence of an estimated 400 million guns renders gun control legislation nearly irrelevant. (I do think there is merit in trying, but decades of lax rules and enforcement present a pretty high mountain to climb.)

Objections to this proposed legislation are arising in several realms and the tech industry has not weighed in at this early juncture. They will, as billions of dollars are at stake. Forbes and others estimate that TikTok alone generates as much as $100 billion per year in economic activity. Of course not all of this is derived from activity of young users, but a prohibition would be take a heavy financial toll. It will surprise few readers that my progressive economic values greet the tech industry concerns with a mighty yawn.

Of more substantial concern are the First Amendment ramifications of this legislative proposal. There is considerable case law that confers First Amendment rights on minors. Philosophically, a reasonable point of view might be found from the National Coalition Against Censorship:

The failure to acknowledge the right of young people to self-expression creates a gaping hole in the fabric of the First Amendment. NCAC believes that young people have a right to speak, read, and think freely. They need to experience freedom to learn about it and practice it. It’s also critical to protect the rights of the young because any incursion on fundamental First Amendment principles threatens the rights of all.

A practical concern about this proposed legislation is the utter havoc it would unleash on parents and families. The use of social media is so deeply embedded in adolescent relationships that its sudden absence would be an explosive dynamic. I wish it were not so, but it is hard to imagine how social relationships would have to be recalibrated if these policies were imposed.

Enforcement is of similar concern. Having a government-regulated system of age identification carries a dangerous Big Brother scent. Concerns have been expressed about the danger of China harvesting data from TikTok users. Frankly, that’s hyperbolic, as young TikTok users don’t carry much national security information on their smartphones! Ironically, if this legislation requires government registration of social media use, that creates one of the problems they’re trying to prevent. Harkening back to the previous paragraph, the pressure on kids and their caregivers to develop “workarounds” would be immense. And, of course, the history of prohibitions suggests that much of what is prohibited will find subterranean expression – and that could be worse.

Finally, I wonder if the legislators fully understand the use of social media by today’s youth. Perhaps there are positive aspects of social media that go unrecognized by fearful adults.

I know from my granddaughter’s experience that rich emotional relationships are developed and nurtured with these media. Friend groups conspire, create, laugh and learn from each other. Yes, bullying, exclusion and other ills accompany the process, but it is naive to believe that the various social media are the cause of or only forum for these rites of adolescent passage. More often, social media sites help create social bonds and provide a relatively safe and private place to process the complex emotions of adolescence with compassion and empathy.

I’ve watched both of my grandchildren create silly and/or creative TikTok videos. Although the influence of so-called “influencers” is utterly useless, I suspect we overestimate the impact this has on kids’ daily lives.

There are, and should be more, tools in place to limit the reach of those who exploit the system. The social media giants can do more to self-regulate in this regard. Perhaps the threat of this legislation will prod them toward greater responsibility. And, of course, parents and caregivers can institute controls, both technological and human.

The best solution is to provide kids with more things to do. Music, dance, sports, theater and other activities are much more enjoyable. For so many kids, their smartphones continue the relationships developed during these healthy pursuits.

This legislative overreach would throw the babies out with the bathwater. Do something about guns instead.


Steve Nelson
Steve Nelson is a retired educator, author, and newspaper columnist. He and his wife Wendy moved to Erie from Manhattan in 2017 to be near family. He was a serious violinist and athlete until a catastrophic mountain bike accident in 2020. He now specializes in gratitude and kindness.

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