Members of the Texas House gave their approval last month to a bill that would require social media platforms to obtain parental consent before allowing a minor to create an account. The bill, House Bill 18, is reportedly a priority for House Speaker Dade Phelan and is similar to a number of bills that state legislatures across the country are pushing that would put age restrictions on social media use.
As the president of the Reboot Foundation, which I founded to elevate critical thinking and reflective thought, I recognize the danger in giving the government more control over what people in a free society can see, hear and say. But a growing body of research has linked social media to harmful behaviors among children, and the platforms have shown an inability to address the issue in any meaningful way.
However, no matter how badly new regulations like HB 18 may be needed, they won’t solve this problem until parents get better tools to monitor and engage with their children’s activity on social networks.
Could TikTok, for example, build a feature that gave parents the ability to remotely close the app on their kid’s phone after a set time limit? Or how about this: When a child tries to post to social media, the app could alert their parents and require approval before it goes live.
By giving parents tools like these, app makers could play an important role in fostering discussions between parents and children about the role of social media in their lives. Such changes would help parents have more visibility into their child’s social media usage, and create opportunities for adults to lead by example by modeling good social media behavior themselves. They would also lessen the need for new laws like HB 18.
In March, Reboot surveyed 1,000 young TikTok users and found that nearly 30% of girls are on the app for four or more hours a day. More than half of all teen TikTokkers reported spending more than two hours a day on the app. Our survey also found that the more time kids spend on TikTok, the more likely they are to believe the content they see there. This is troublesome because some researchers have found that up to 20% of the videos on the app contain misinformation or disinformation of some kind.
Tech companies, perhaps reading the tea leaves, have begun to look inward for solutions. TikTok, for example, announced recently that it will limit the daily screen time of its youngest users to one hour per day, but it turns out a child can sidestep the time limit with a single click and without the knowledge or consent of a parent.
I am a parent of a teenager. And like most parents, I recognize that it’s hard work to get a clear view of what teens are thinking, feeling and experiencing as they grow up and engage with the world. I also suspect, just as many parents experience, teens are more inclined to share those insights on social media than they are with their moms and dads. It’s a challenge many of us face as our children grow up in an era dominated by technology.
Awareness matters. Parents need to fully understand the outsize role social networks play in their children’s lives, while also helping them find balance in their online activities by setting an example. Ultimately we have to show our children how to make sense of the social network era. And one important way to teach children good social media habits is to have good social media habits ourselves.
As most adults may find, it’s hard to differentiate the nuances of TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram or any of the constantly emerging apps and social media options out there. But caregivers don’t need to be experts in order to model good, healthy habits. For example, they should monitor how much time they spend on screens and social media and set limits for themselves. They should make rules for the family and stick to them, such as no cellphones at the dinner table and no phones in the bedroom at night. And, they should teach their kids to be good critical thinkers, to have sharp media literacy skills, and practice those skills themselves.
Parents need to right-size the role social networks play in their children’s lives, and they can do that by setting a good example with their own social media use and by advocating for improved tools from tech companies. It’s a difficult position. But carving out the parental role in the evolution of social media is essential to safeguarding children. And like most things when it comes to parenting, it is rarely easy but always worth it.
Helen Lee Bouygues is the founder and president of the Reboot Foundation. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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