The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Congress must act to keep kids off social media

The Facebook app icon on an iPhone in New York. (Karly Domb Sadof/AP)
3 min

Josh Hawley, a Republican, represents Missouri in the U.S. Senate.

This Congress is less than two months old, and a good many Capitol watchers have already written it off as a lost cause. With control split between Republicans and Democrats, can anything get done?

Of course it can. Lawmakers can enact transformative change almost overnight — if they have the will to act. And I can think of at least one nonpartisan issue that deserves this kind of urgency: protecting children online. We should start by establishing an age requirement of 16 for social media.

Social media has not connected or united the world. It’s tearing people apart. And young people are suffering the most. Researcher Jean Twenge, who has spent her career chronicling social media’s effects on kids, has observed that the longer children use social media, the more likely they are to harm themselves. This finding held true for both boys and girls — but especially girls. Depression and social media use go hand in hand.

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Conservatives aren’t the only ones noticing who’s responsible. Seattle Public Schools — no right-wing stronghold — has sued TikTok, Meta, Snap and other companies for worsening the youth mental health crisis. And a British court recently held Instagram liable for peddling self-harm content to a 14-year-old girl who took her own life.

None of this should come as a surprise to the platforms. They have known about the consequences of their operations for years. In 2021, the Wall Street Journal published internal documents from Instagram researchers revealing a long history of investigating the platform’s harm to kids. As Instagram employees acknowledged, a third of teenage girls said “that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” The company also found that “among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram.”

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It’s not just algorithms and design decisions putting kids at risk. Child sexual abuse material circulates on mainstream platforms such as Twitter, fueling an underground economy run by human traffickers. With millions of exploitation images circulating across the internet — and more every year — the scale of the problem far outpaces law enforcement’s effort to keep up. While Congress talks, children suffer.

In short, these platforms have become dangerous to young people, pushing them toward nihilistic disengagement or despair. Predators and traffickers, like vultures, hover just out of view.

Congress could blunt these harms by simply passing a law that would keep kids off social media until they’re at least 16 and better positioned to use the technologies safely.

Such a law would need teeth, of course. So let’s give it some. We can require real age verification processes and direct the Federal Trade Commission to carry out periodic audits to ensure compliance. And we can empower parents to bring lawsuits against companies that break the rules.

Such a law wouldn’t replace parents. Rather, it would support them. Most of them don’t want their kids on social media at an early age anyway, and many kids join only because their friends have joined. We can protect kids when they are most vulnerable by keeping them off social media during their formative years.

At the same time, Congress should authorize a federal study to examine social media’s effects on kids’ mental health. And websites that collect data from minors should be required to provide straightforward opt-outs. These are simple, common-sense steps that should sail through Congress by unanimous consent.

Decades from now, future generations will look back on social media in the 2010s and 2020s as we look back on the days of asbestos in buildings or lead in the water supply. Danger was everywhere; leaders only needed to realize it.