Writing in National Review, cultural critic Christine Rosen recently proposed a total ban on social media for everyone under the age of 16. One can imagine all sorts of problems with this idea, ranging from enforcement issues to what it would be like living in a country where nearly all the teenagers start screaming at the same time. But let’s step back from the immediate issues and effects, and ask what the ethics of such a ban would be. 

Rosen cites a number of other things that we don’t let teenagers and younger kids do:  driving, voting, drinking and smoking (at least in public), and enlisting in the military.  There are various specific reasons for each of these bans, but at bottom, they all amount to the same thing: lack of judgmental maturity, specifically a virtue called prudence. 

This is not to say that there are no prudent 10-year-olds. But the classical virtue of prudence involves a mature measure of reasoned self-discipline. Our intuitive sense that younger people, especially teenagers, are on average less able to impose discipline on their powerful desires is confirmed by neurological studies of the brains of teenagers and adults that were observed in the lab while the subjects made decisions.

In teenagers, the part of the brain called the amygdala, which governs “fight-or-flight” impulsive behaviour, tends to take precedence over the frontal cortex, which is where deliberation and conscious decision-making tend to occur. If teenagers tend to be physically incapable of making certain decisions in a way that doesn’t harm themselves or others, it is a good thing to remove the choice from them until they are older. 

Addicted

Rosen cites an internal study by Instagram that showed fully one-third of teenage girls found using the platform made them feel worse, but they were unable to stop it.  She points out that the 18-year-old who killed 21 people, most of them children, in a Uvalde elementary school last month had the habit of bullying others on social media.

These examples highlight the fact that a mixture of hormonally stimulated teenagers and electronic media expressly designed to promote “engagement” by pressing mental hot buttons exquisitely ferreted out and customised to the user, leads to behaviour that exploits teenagers, displaces time that could be used for in-person interaction, working, or sleeping, and at the extremes, encourages callousness, bullying, cruelty, and abuse.  

And there doesn’t seem to be any way to design out the bad features while leaving in the good features. If only angels used social media, there would be no downsides to it, but as angels communicate by what amounts to telepathy, there would also be no point in it. (Angels also don’t have any money.)  As much as the social-media giants don’t like to admit it, they are basically in the same business as gambling casinos are:  to encourage something that at best is an amusing pastime, but at worst can be an enslaving and life-destroying habit

Gambling is another thing that we generally don’t let teenagers do, for the same reasons as for driving or drinking.  When Rosen points out that the average teen spends five hours a day on social media, that is a mind-boggling number of person-hours that has been commandeered by firms who take huge amounts of time from young people, make huge amounts of money from them, and deliver very little that benefits them — especially considering the other things that the teens could be doing.

Similar debates took place back in the 1950s about the time people spent watching television, which has been largely displaced among the young by social media. Television was an almost completely passive medium, however, and it wasn’t possible to insult your neighbour or bully your girlfriend through the tube. Mass-market television had its own problems, but they were demonstrably milder than the worst pathologies we are seeing today that social media contribute to.

Practicalities

How would a ban on use of social media by those under 16 be enforced?  I can daydream about some measures that might be impractical, but also might be worth trying. 

One would be to have a social-media licence, comparable to a driver licence. I can’t imagine what kind of test we could make up to qualify a person to be able to use social media responsibly. Maybe a highly-monitored “test drive” in which the prospective licensee’s every text and comment would be vetted for meanness or bullying? Of course, even hypocrites can behave nicely if they have to, and we might just let everyone have a licence once they reached their sixteenth birthday.   

But I kind of like the idea of making people work for it, and teaching them some ground rules about social-media behaviour before turning them loose on the Internet. The licence idea would also help to deal with the problem of enforcement. The banks have worked out ways of knowing exactly who is at the keyboard in the vast majority of cases.

True, there are always identity thieves to be fought, but thieves go where the money is. There’s not much money in faking a social-media account identity, so I would think that enforcement policies as robust as those banks use would keep fake identity problems down to a minimum.

Whatever the enforcement mechanism would be, it would have to come with severe penalties to the social-media companies for violations as well. Shutting down half their servers, for example, might be a much more meaningful penalty than a fine, which is usually chump change to these giants.

Better days

I will close with an anecdote about a car salesman, about twenty-five years old, with whom I fell into conversation one day as we were taking a new car for a test drive.  He was obviously aiming to please, but the remark he made as my wife and I reminisced about cars we had twenty and thirty years ago wasn’t calculated to please me.

Apropos of nothing, he said, “Well, there’s some things you folks enjoyed back then that I wish I could have experienced.  It’s life without those,” he said, pointing to my wife’s mobile phone. Of all the changes from our generation to his that he could have mentioned, he saw the personal phone as something he wished he could have lived without.

The obstacles are many, but I hope Rosen’s idea to ban social media for those under 16 gets serious consideration.  Evidence has been accumulating for decades that it is probably a net harm to young people, and what we lack now is only the will to make the change.

This article has been reposted with permission from the Engineering Ethics Blog.

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...