Childhood and adolescence have always been fraught with danger. Parents have been at their proverbial wit’s end since the primary hazard was a sabertooth tiger.
These days, one such fright is “social media,” which can mean a lot of things but generally refers to platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. Apps on smartphones that can take the human need to communicate and hype it into addictive brain candies that, at their worst, carry messages of bullying, body shaming and other darts that can lead to depression or even suicide.
But it is just as true that, ever since Professor Harold Hill warned the good people of River City, Iowa, about their children frequenting pool halls and “memorizing jokes from Capt. Billy’s Whiz Bang,” whatever is new and scary about a culture provides an avenue for con men and well-meaning busybodies to offer protection for our little dears.
In just the past couple of weeks, we have seen Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and Attorney General Sean Reyes issue a pointed, yet vague, threat to file some kind of lawsuit against various social media platforms for the damage they have caused our young people.
The Utah Legislature is pondering bills that would force Big Tech to limit access to social media platforms to those 18 or older unless they obtain a parent’s permission. In Congress, Utah Rep. Chris Stewart has floated a bill to ban those under 16 from accessing social media altogether.
These worthies are not wrong about the dangers that accompany social media. They are real.
But our leaders fail to realize the social media genies are well out of the bottle, that they have good uses as well as bad, that the ability of one state to control the behavior of global businesses is limited at best, and that controlling the flow of thought and information, even bad thought and information, is not something we are — or should be — very good at.
We’ve heard it all before. Bathtub gin and saxophones. Movies. Comic books. Rock ‘n’ roll. Mad magazine. MTV. Video games. HBO. The Internet. Each of these, in their turn, was destined to rob our children of their virtue, their virginity and even their lives.
Bad things have happened, do happen and will happen. But the solution is not an impossible and perhaps unconstitutional government campaign seeking to block this, or any, form of communication.
The public and private responsibility is just what it always has been, to raise a generation of humans who carry their own defenses, their own filters, their own self-worth, their own, in the words of Ernest Hemingway, “built-in, shockproof, s--- detector.”
And our leaders have shown that they understand this, at least a little.
Utah has rolled out SafeUT, a smartphone app that reaches the younger generation where it lives, online, with information and access to counseling for those who are in emotional pain, contemplating suicide or self-harm or know of someone else who is.
According to its own annual report, SafeUT “saw more than 1 million back-and-forth chat messages, 8,537 tips, and 801 potential school threats or acts of violence tips,” from July 2021 and June 2022.
As for Stewart, one bit of legislation he rightly takes pride in is the national 988 suicide prevention line. It was bipartisan legislation the Utahn shepherded through Congress in 2020, a system that became operational in 2022. There is little doubt that it will ease much pain and save lives.
But, apparently, reaching out to help people doesn’t bring as much political benefit as pointing out yon evildoers and promising to protect us, and our children, from them.
There are large ironies to the state and federal bills. Each would not only enlarge government, something these Republicans are supposed to be against, but also require the social media giants to gather personal information — drivers licenses, birth dates, etc. — to fulfill the requirement to ban those of a certain age or verify parental consent.
Giving the Internet more of our personal data than it already has — which is already way too much — hardly seems like a solution.
Politicians worried about social media would improve their brief if their fellow Republicans weren’t also busy trying to censor school books, whitewash American history and using those same channels to spread election fraud lies and plan attacks on the Capitol.
And social media managers would be more trustworthy if they would make more of an effort to police their own houses, watching for bullying and racism and promoting healthy information.
If our elected leaders are genuinely concerned about the damage social media can do, they should be pulling the levers they already have control of.
Even if social media had never been invented, our children would be in need of a lot more access to mental health services, through their school counselors and beyond, than they have now.
Government, religious institutions, social groups and families should be talking about the woes of youth that social media did not invent, but that it amplifies. We need stronger educational services that include mental and social health and media literacy.
Yes, all of that would cost money and would lack the personal and political exhilaration of slaying a big, bad dragon.
But the dragons will always be there. It’s our job to give our children the right armor.