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Social Media Bans Distract From Real Issue

Proposed social media bans are distracting us from the real issue — how to make digital experiences better for children.

There is a danger of young people feeling like they're being punished and patronised in the discussions around social media bans. (Paul Hanaoka/Unsplash)

By Aleesha Rodriguez and Michael Dezuanni, Queensland University of Technology and Tama Leaver, Curtin University

BRISBANE, June 12 – Governments across Australia are proposing social media bans for children under 14 or 16, depending on the jurisdiction.

It’s a move being backed by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, with the federal government committing $6.5 million towards a trial of age verification technology.

But bans can prevent children discussing how they’re using online spaces with the trusted adults in their lives and risks driving any subsequent social media use underground.

Such announcements distract us from the conversation we really need to be having: how can we make social media better for children and young people so that they have safe, playful, exploratory, fun, entertaining, positive and educational experiences online?

During a radio interview about a recent campaign to ban social media for under 16s, Albanese said: “What we want is our youngest Australians spending more time outside playing sport, engaging with each other in a normal way and less time online. And one way to do that is through restrictions on social media.”

His assumption that there is one way to experience childhood is misplaced — there is no one version of a ‘normal’ childhood. And young people who enjoy social media also often enjoy the outdoors, sport and cultural activities.

The call for a ban is based on a campaign called 36 Months, which represents the time that advocates want teens to wait before accessing social media — from the current age of 13 to 16.

This campaign appears to draw heavily from a popular psychology book by Professor Jonathan Haidt called The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness.

In it, he draws on particular data to construct a narrative that the cause for poor youth mental health and wellbeing is directly linked to the rise of smartphones and social media.

These claims are disputed in the scholarly community as research is still ongoing.

Professor Haidt’s book rehashes similar claims made by Professor Jean Twenge in her book called iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What That Means for the Rest of Us.

One of the best ways to sell a book is to make parents afraid for the young people in their lives, it seems.

At the time Professor Twenge’s book was published in 2017 there were similar discussions that smartphones and social media were the sole reason for young people’s experiences of poor mental health.

Not only are these arguments placing too much agency on the technology, but they also actively distract from the real issues by shifting the focus to removing the technology rather than encouraging everyone to demand more from tech companies to (re)design these digital experiences to better support children’s play, learning and development.

The stance that “parents should restrict digital technology use” continues to place the burden of responsibility on families, which is unfair.

The public should not only be expecting but demanding that young people’s digital experiences are designed slowly and with consideration and consultation with children, carers, families, educators and experts.

Imagine a future where parental controls are not needed because digital experiences for children are designed so well — and societally there is a shift in thinking that understanding children’s experiences with the internet is a social good that all are responsible for facilitating.

The Internet wasn’t designed with children in mind, but there are ways that can be changed going forward.

Age-appropriate design and access is one answer.

This would recognise that, for example, a five year-old’s internet experience would be different to a 12 year-old’s, and that from a 14 year-old’s to that of a 17 year-old’s.

Our goal as a society ought to be about creating high-quality digital products and services for children, which can include social media that provides age-appropriate experiences.

Creating a more robust process for verifying age has been a discussion for many years, but there are many practical, technical, and especially privacy, challenges.

Many adults have some sort of accessible legal identity documents such as  a driver’s licence or passport, but when verifying the age of a 12- or 13-year-old things can be much trickier.

This has led to different tools, some of which verify and some of which estimate age. None are foolproof.

It’s widely agreed that something better is needed, which led to Australia’s eSafety Commissioner releasing an age verification roadmap in early 2023.

The government’s initial response to the eSafety Commissioner’s Roadmap in August 2023 noted that the technical challenges and privacy concerns were too significant to justify moving forward with a trial.

However, less than a year later, with no significant change in the technical or privacy capabilities on offer, political pressure on a number of fronts has seen the government change its stance, committing $6.5 million to trial age verification technology.

At times this trial has been framed as preventing under-18s from accessing pornography, but now has also shifted to the question of verifying younger people’s identities when joining social media platforms and other online services.

With the age verification trial now linked to the push for social media bans for under-16s, there is a danger of young people feeling like they’re being punished and patronised rather than educated or equipped for a future in our digital world.

Bans have the tendency of preventing, delaying or displacing important conversations with children and young people about their safe, productive, creative and enjoyable participation in online spaces.

If we can help children and young people feel like partners, not just people in need of protection, that’s likely to have greater benefits in the long term.

There are other concrete things that can be done to make the internet better for children.

These include developing quality standards for age-appropriate entertainment and educational products and services for children; and providing clear advice and better mechanisms for age-appropriate access and use of products and services for children and families.

Using language like “the children’s internet” when talking about these issues is also of benefit, as it’s important that we normalise the reality of children and young people experiencing and enjoying the internet.

This provides a means by which to move away from these unhelpful deficit-based discourses towards more productive and generative discussions on how we make the internet better for children.

Article courtesy of 360info.  

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