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Why Not Ban Everything Potentially Dangerous for Kids?

Why Not Ban Everything Potentially Dangerous for Kids?

February 16, 2024

In the midst of growing concerns for children’s safety online, multiple states have considered or passed legislation restricting children under a certain age from using social media without parental consent, or even entirely. If lawmakers want to address potential dangers to children, including issues lacking scientific consensus as to the level of risk involved, then there are plenty of other activities they should also restrict or ban.

The American Psychological Association (APA) states that social media may perpetuate eating disorders and poor body image and self-esteem by enabling young people, especially girls, to compare themselves to others, including highly edited and curated images of social media influencers. However, many forms of traditional media reinforce these same unrealistic body standards, including movies, television, music, advertising, and magazines. Yet there are no government regulations in the United States preventing children from watching movies or television without parental consent, or banning magazines or advertisements targeted to children and teens.

Or consider other common activities that can cause physical harm to children. Driving poses a significant risk to children’s physical well-being. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), injuries are a leading cause of death for children and teens in the United States, with motor vehicle crash deaths most common among children over the age of 4. For children between the ages of 1 and 4, drowning is the leading cause of injury-related death, indicating that bodies of water—particularly pools and hot tubs—also pose a significant risk to children.

While far less likely to lead to death, participation in sports also puts children in harm’s way. In the United States, more than 3.5 million children under age 15 get injured playing sports or participating in recreational activities each year, with over 775,000 children ending up in the emergency room, and sports and recreational activities are responsible for 21 percent of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) among children. TBI can cause serious, potentially long-lasting issues related to cognition, memory, vision, hearing, coordination, energy, mood, sleep, and more.

There are many other activities that put children in harm’s way, either physically or mentally. For example, children can get injured on playgrounds, a phenomenon that primarily impacts children ages 2 to 9. Video games can lead to addiction or expose children to potentially harmful content, including much of the same harmful content present on social media. Protecting children from the harm they may face using social media will not keep them safe from the rest of the world’s dangers.

Certainly traditional media, driving, swimming, sports and recreational activities, playgrounds, and video games all have benefits for society and children, from entertainment to convenience to health benefits associated with outdoor exercise. But, following the logic of many states seeking to restrict children’s access to social media and the attitudes of many members of Congress, lawmakers should restrict children’s ability to participate in these activities as well. After all, if any danger is present, then an activity is inherently dangerous and should be banned. But lawmakers do not do this, because doing so would limit useful and helpful activities children participate in. Social media is no different, as children gain significant benefits from using it appropriately, including education, connections to friends and family, and just plain fun.

Of course, lawmakers do not ban these activities, nor should they. Instead, parents have the primary responsibility of keeping their children safe, such as by supervising them playing in a pool, deciding which video games they play and which movies and TV shows they watch, and driving safely and making sure everyone wears a seat belt. The same should be true for social media.

Social media platforms can and should adopt safety mechanisms similar to those present in other industries. Movies, television, and video games have adopted industry-led rating systems that indicate to parents the ages for which each piece of media is most appropriate. Music with explicit lyrics uses a Parental Advisory label to warn parents, and often artists release a censored version of their music that is more appropriate for children. Children participating in sports wear safety gear such as helmets, knee and elbow pads, shin guards, mouthguards, and gloves. Vehicles come with seat belts and children under a certain age sit in car or booster seats.

Various social media platforms have already begun implementing systems that give parents more control, allowing parents to supervise their children’s accounts, set time limits and scheduled breaks, and adjust privacy, content, and messaging settings. Other systems create different browsing environments for children of different ages, tailoring content to a certain age group and hiding content that would be inappropriate for that age group. Social media platforms should continue to experiment with systems to give parents more control and set higher default safety and privacy settings for child accounts.

Where physical danger is present, lawmakers should step in. There are car seat laws in all 50 states protecting children in motor vehicles. Congress can protect children from some of the worst danger they may face online, child sexual abuse, by giving law enforcement more resources to investigate reports and prosecute perpetrators and increasing funding for police technology and training. Effective protection for children online requires a combination of parental responsibility, industry standards, and regulation, not blanket restrictions and bans.

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