Multiple States Propose Social Media Bans for Adolescents

by Evelyn San Miguel ‘26

Due to rising concerns nationwide, southern states like Florida, Arkansas, and Missouri have proposed bills in their state legislatures that would effectively ban certain social media sites for children under sixteen, attempting to lead the way in a new era of protecting children against Big Tech. Though which sites would be banned remains uncertain, the message being made still stands: social media harms adolescents, and it needs to be regulated.

On February 1, CEOs from the world’s biggest social media companies gathered to testify in Congress in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In a rare display of bipartisanship, CEOs of Meta, Snap, Discord, TikTok, and X (formerly known as Twitter), were questioned thoroughly by senators as to whether their algorithms and business models are formulated to target impressionable teens and perpetuate the spread of harmful information for the purpose of ad revenue. Among the hearing’s most memorable moments was Meta’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, apologizing to families who lost their children as a result of sexual exploitation or harassment via social media. Other attacks have come from the House, whose most recent bill targets TikTok, declaring a full out ban if the Chinese owners do not sell the company.

Although the topic is politicized, consensus is forming about social media and teens. Most health organizations and experts agree: social media has serious, real, and harmful consequences in regards to mental health and physical safety for adolescents who are active on them. In a study conducted by Yale Medicine, adolescents 12-15 who used social media for more than three hours a day were two times more likely to be vulnerable to developing mental illnesses like depression or anxiety, or exacerbate the symptoms of pre-existing mental conditions.

An informative example of the harms and dangers of social media comes from a recent phenomenon that has gained popularity among teen boys since the Covid-19 pandemic: the idea of “bulking up” or gaining muscle to improve their physique to unhealthily cope with issues pertaining to home, school, romantic relationships, or their body image. These mindsets tie into narratives of toxic masculinity and disordered behaviors that directly target young males and can lead to developing a type of body dysmorphia aptly named by Harvard Health as “Muscle Dysmorphia.” It includes working out excessively for hours at a time, participating in disordered dieting or eating patterns for the sake of improving their physique, and idealizing unrealistic or harmful expectations for male bodies. Experts say social media is a direct cause, with algorithms that are built to feed similar content for continued engagement, often leading their users down a rabbit hole of harmful, dangerous, or negative posts. One pediatric doctor from the University of California San Francisco, Jason Nagata, told the Washington Post that social media sites like Instagram and TikTok “can create pressures for boys to display and compare their muscular physiques,” with both linking directly to increased levels of dysmorphic thought processes and disordered eating.

Banning social media does, however, have its drawbacks. Many platforms provide a place for individuals to find community, and limiting that potential could mean depriving people of meaningful connections that are made through the internet and social media. Members of the LGBTQIA+ community and marginalized youth, for example, find safe havens in social media. Social media sites can provide a space for creative expression of sexuality and identity, creating a safer, more accepting environment for marginalized groups that face discrimination in their day-to-day lives. Without this outlet, these groups could be at a higher risk for developing or worsening mental illnesses like anxiety and depression.

Southern states’ efforts against social media, and more specifically, Florida’s proposed bill, raise the question of how much the government can regulate decisions that would normally be up to parents. While Florida’s bill targets singularly banning social media for those under sixteen, it treads a dangerous line between protection and outright censorship. Social media platforms are major hubs for political and social commentary, with most of the voices participating in that commentary being young people. Dissenting parties argue that by removing millions of people from consuming this kind of content and participating in these discussions, it would effectively “silence an entire generation.” Privacy concerns have been brought up with the bill as well, since social media companies would have to authenticate their users’ ages by requiring them to submit some type of official, government-issued identification. For the companies, implementing an authentication system to that scale would be incredibly difficult, violate their privacy policies, and have no guarantee of actually being effective.