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Social Media Panic Is the New Video Game Panic

Social Media Panic Is the New Video Game Panic

January 26, 2024

Social media remains at the height of the tech panic cycle, with New York City Mayor Eric Adams announcing on January 24, 2024, that the city was classifying “unfettered access to and use of social media” as a public health hazard. This announcement and the accompanying health advisory represent an ongoing trend of fearmongering and bad policy decisions that occurs virtually every time a transformative new technology reaches the mainstream, from the telegraph to the Walkman. While there are real concerns associated with social media, especially as it relates to children and teens, policymakers will only create more problems by legislating out of fear and public pressure.

The tech panic cycle refers to the phenomenon of new technology following a predictable trajectory of trusting beginnings, rising panic, deflating fears, and moving on. For a recent example of a technology that fell victim to this cycle, look no further than the widespread panic surrounding video games in the late 20th and early 21st century. Alarmists blamed video games for violence, social isolation, addictive behavior, poor health outcomes, and other real or perceived moral and social ills, particularly among teenagers. Local and state governments enacted restrictions on the sale of violent video games, while Congress considered legislation at a federal level, including one notable bill proposed by then-Senator Hillary Clinton.

All this occurred while the jury was still out as to the real extent of video games’ impact on young people. In 2001, in the midst of the video game panic, the Surgeon General wrote in a report on youth violence that “the impact of video games on violent behavior remains to be determined.” Researchers found evidence supporting both sides of the argument. Instead of taking all the evidence into account and enacting policies designed to both amplify the benefits and limit the risks associated with gaming, policymakers sought only to crack down on an industry they viewed as dangerous to children. This led to many bad policies that were eventually struck down by courts for violating the First Amendment.

While the gaming industry still sometimes finds itself in the crosshairs of tech panic, it seems society has largely moved on to a new target: social media. Disappointingly, this new tech panic cycle is following a nearly identical trajectory. Despite conflicting evidence on how social media affects children, with the American Psychological Association finding that “using social media is not inherently beneficial or harmful to young people,” multiple states have passed laws restricting youth social media use, and Congress is considering legislation of its own. Now some of the states that legislated out of fear are facing lawsuits alleging these laws violate the First Amendment.

There are real concerns associated with young people’s use of social media, just as there are real concerns associated with young people playing video games. There are also real benefits. Social media can expose young people to abusive individuals and harmful content, but it can also connect young people with supportive, like-minded communities and facilitate young people’s engagement with politics and knowledge of current events. As long as policymakers ignore the potential benefits and focus only on the potential risks, they will continue to enact policies that do more harm than good, including infringing on young people’s freedom to engage in online forms of expression that are increasingly important in the digital age.

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