Does limiting social media help children’s mental health? Florida can try.

Does limiting social media help children’s mental health? Florida can try.

TALLAHASSEE — Amid rising anxiety and suicide rates among teens, Florida lawmakers are proposing a solution: Block their use of social media.

Under House Bill 1, children under 16 would be banned from using social media. Another bill would prevent them from accessing online pornography.

For top lawmakers and other advocates, social media is akin to opioids and tobacco.

“Companies are knowingly introducing harmful products that take the lives of young people, and yet they do nothing to stop it,” House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, said Thursday.

Although rates of anxiety and depression among teens have increased with the rise of social media, there is little data to suggest that one factor causes the other, researchers say.

Instead, there are signs of larger problems in American society. Children have much less time to play than they did a few decades ago. Suicide rates among older adults are also high.

“I think people have a misunderstanding of what’s going on,” said Christopher Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University who has studied the issue and written about it for Psychology Today.

“Everyone is experiencing increased depression and anxiety.”

Florida will join other states

Under HB 1, social media companies like Facebook and TikTok will need to hire a third-party company to verify users’ ages. New users under the age of 16 are not allowed to join. Existing accounts will be deleted.

These rules do not apply to applications that are primarily focused on messaging.

HB 3 would restrict access to online pornography and other “material harmful to minors” to anyone under the age of 18, which is defined as “arousing lewd interest” that an ordinary person would find. The sites must also hire a company to perform age verification.

The legislation has bipartisan support, including from conservative and Christian groups, and is one of Renner’s top priorities. The bills passed their first House committee on Thursday, with only one lawmaker voting against them.

There is a similar bill in the Senate, and House Speaker Katherine Passimomo, R-Naples, said this week that “the Senate is very interested in supporting these measures.”

If the bill passes, Florida would join Utah, Arkansas and Mississippi in enforcing age restrictions on social media sites. More states have enacted restrictions on online pornography. (Some State social media and pornography bills have been blocked by federal judge on grounds They violate minors’ right to free speech. )

The legislation comes in response to sharp increases in teen suicide rates and depression among teenage girls, particularly since 2010. The timing has led many to link rising suicide rates to smartphones and social media. iPhone was released in 2007.

Research also found that the longer you use social media, the worse your mental health. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy cited this statistic last year when he urged parents and policymakers to take action to better understand the problem.

“Not just in this country, but globally and everywhere you have social media, you see this very direct correlation that is devastating to the mental health and well-being of our children,” Renner said Thursday. Influence.”

Reyna and other lawmakers cited social media companies’ desire to keep young people on their platforms. In 2021, Wall Street Journal reporters discovered slides from internal Instagram researchers that admitted that teenage girls who felt bad about their bodies felt worse when using the platform.

“We’re making body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” one slide said, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In October, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody and dozens of other attorneys general sued Meta, the parent company of Instagram and Facebook, accusing the platforms of “intentionally addicting children and teenagers.”

Research is inconclusive

But the data aren’t as conclusive as advocates of social media-restrictive countries.

The American Psychological Association reviewed the studies and concluded that “social media use is not inherently beneficial or harmful for young people.”

The association writes that the impact of social media depends on what teens do online, their pre-existing strengths or weaknesses and how they were raised.

Researchers say that while there may be a correlation between social media and mental health, that doesn’t mean one causes the other. Ferguson calls this relationship the “ecological fallacy,” where two unrelated things appear to be correlated, such as the known correlation between the number of people who drown in swimming pools each year and the number of movies starring Nicolas Cage.

Other evidence suggests social media is not the problem. Social media is popular around the world, but Europeans, for example, are not seeing an increase in suicide rates. Suicide rates also drop during the summer when teens are out of school.

Instead, Ferguson and other researchers believe other factors are driving the mental health crisis.

Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College who has written extensively on the subject, noted that the largest increase in suicide rates among Americans peaked in the mid-1990s, before the advent of the Internet. Interest rates continued to fall until last decade, when they again reached 1990s levels.

“People who talk about social media being the problem are missing this point,” Gray said.

Gray points out that over the past few decades, American children’s playtime (unstructured time away from adults) has decreased significantly, while rates of depression and anxiety have increased. He co-founded Let Grow, an advocacy group that encourages children to gain more freedom.

Unsupervised time away from parents can teach children to be self-sufficient and learn how to cope with stress, Gray said. But today’s kids have more time to spend on homework, adult-directed activities, and (for some parents) an obsessive focus on getting their kids into elite colleges. He said these actions deprive children of valuable time for themselves and their peers.

“The opposite of play is not work. The opposite is depression,” he said.

Teens report that social media is one of the few places where teens can talk to friends away from their parents, he said.

“What I see is a movement to take away more freedoms from young people,” Gray said.

Renner is not opposed to the importance of play and mental health, noting that lawmakers last year pushed to have high school students start their classes later to help with sleep. He said abolishing social media would give children more time for real-world interactions.

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