Commentary: Facebook Messenger Kids Is Like Cigarettes for Children

January 30, 2018, 5:38 PM UTC

Smoking, drinking too much, and spending too much time on digital media: none of these three things are good for you, and they definitely aren’t good for our kids. Yet digital media is virtually unregulated, while cigarettes and alcohol are subject to stringent regulation.

Research increasingly links spending three or more hours a day on electronic devices to higher rates of depression, loneliness, sleep deprivation, and risk factors for suicide. Longitudinal and experimental studies consistently show that time on digital media leads to unhappiness, rather than unhappiness leading to more digital media use. In research for my book, I found that the average 12th grader spends six hours a day texting, online, and on social media. Since smartphones became common around 2012, rates of depression, intentional self-harm, and suicide among teens have skyrocketed.

Even entrepreneurs who made their money in tech have recently spoken out about its addictive nature, including Facebook co-founder Sean Parker and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. Benioff recently suggested that social media should be regulated like the tobacco industry.

Some solutions to this problem are straightforward. The already-existing law requiring social media users to be 13 years of age or older should be enforced. At the moment, kids can simply lie about their birth year to create an account. In a survey sponsored by Facebook, 81% of parents said their kids started using social media between the ages of eight and 13. That’s right—there are second graders with their own accounts on social media.

So have social media companies responded by finally enforcing the age limit? Nope—incredibly, they have instead rolled out junior versions of their platforms so that even more kids will use them. These include Facebook’s Messenger Kids, designed for children as young as six. Although Messenger Kids does not include ads and allows parental control of children’s contact lists, it does not limit the amount of time kids can spend using it. It’s as if the tobacco industry, hearing that cigarettes weren’t safe, introduced a presumably safer mini-cigarette for children with the same addictive properties and no regulation over how many kids could smoke.

Even with some parental oversight, young children are just not ready for social media and its demands. That’s why a coalition of 97 child health advocates (including me) released a letter Tuesday asking Facebook to discontinue Messenger Kids.

Smartphone manufacturers should also be subject to more regulation, such as requiring that the age of the user be specified when the phone is set up. Then parents could set restrictions on the use of the phone, including time limits on certain apps (say, only an hour a day on Instagram) or shutting down at 9 p.m. on school nights. I recently helped draft a letter to Apple from two major investors asking the company to implement such controls. Better parental controls would also carry benefits for the bottom line: Parents might be more willing to buy smartphones for their children if kids’ use could be more easily regulated.

Ultimately it is parents’ responsibility to help children and teens limit their use of digital media. But we don’t expect parents to have the sole responsibility for keeping kids from buying cigarettes or alcohol. Instead, we limit the sale of those products to those over 18 or 21 and place other limits on their advertising and distribution. Parents struggle to help their children find the right balance with technology, which can of course be beneficial in reasonable doses. Regulators, social media companies, and smartphone manufacturers should make parents’ jobs easier, not harder—and that needs to start now.

Jean M. Twenge is the author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood and a professor of psychology at San Diego State University.

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