Should social media use be curbed for under-16s?

Since the murder of Brianna Ghey last year, her mother has been calling for a ban on social media use by children under the age of 16 and this, reportedly, is being considered by the government. Some have even called for those under 16 to be banned from phones. But are these proposals enforceable? Are they liberal in nature? What can actually be done if not?

Esther Ghey has, understandably, called for under 16’s in this country to be banned from social media platforms such as Instagram, X and TikTok. Any ban, I think, would be intended to protect children from the darker side of these platforms and, in the case of young girls in particular, protect them from the body images and false standards these create. I, for one, believe that the intention behind these proposals is well placed. Of course children, who are impressionable and mentally volatile as they figure themselves out, ought to be protected from the risks that the internet and social media can present. However, one of the main issues behind this proposal is that it is unlikely to be enforceable. Children can easily lie about their ages when signing up, parents can easily buy their children phones and anyone can use a VPN. Without infringing the right to privacy (i.e. watching what children do in their own homes), we cannot enforce any law that comes from this. Further to this, it would limit the freedom of parents to raise their children how they choose. I was maybe among the first generation of children (born in 2001) to grow up with Instagram, X and Snapchat and I firmly believe, due to how almost everybody I know has turned out, that it is in the hands of the parenting and schools that determines how children behave in the future and this is through vicarious learning. We should not consider a blanket ban when social media may not actually be the cause.

There are ways we can curb the effects of social media on the young. One way would be to heavily lobby the social media giants to actually remove sexual or violent rhetoric and imagery from their sites rather than just saying they will. X and Reddit, for instance, have extremely relaxed community guidelines meaning that nudity and violence can easily be found on them. Another way is to create a law that states that companies and individuals have to declare if a published image is edited and how, similar to a recent law in France. Failure to comply with this will lead to a heavy fine. This way, children will understand that the bodies that they see are more often altered than not and should lead to more scepticism rather than idolism.

In all, social media can be a place of inclusion, community and fun. But it can also be dangerous. The companies that run these platforms and the individuals on them should do more in the interest of young people, the ones most at risk of harm. This harm can be mental, social or even physical. We must all do more. That being said, wasting precious time on a blanket ban that is, frankly, unenforceable is the wrong response. As seen in France, laws can be made to curb specific risks in social media. This may be the way forward for protection of young people as we enter a new era of social influence through the medium of media.


* Jack Lee-Brown is a student and a member of the Liberal Democrats

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  • Paul Barker 13th Feb '24 - 2:34pm

    Our instinct as Liberals should always be against banning things & in this case its aiming at the wrong target.
    Social Media have been a force for good as well as bad – they need to be managed & guided & – above all – Policed. When anyone talks about wanting to Kill they should be brought to the attention of both Police & Social Services.

  • The fundamental problem with social media is that anyone can post anonymously, and there are rarely any consequences for posting harmful, untruthful or misleading stuff; it’s technologically quite difficult to automatically correctly identify and remove harmful stuff without also mis-identifying and removing perfectly good satire, jokes, useful research etc. Plus an awful lot of people don’t have the skills to identify wrong or misleading stuff. Then you have the addictive nature of social media. Those are the problems that need to be addressed – and we certainly should be looking into tackling them, but I imagine the solution is going to be a lot more complex than simply banning some people from social media.

    I do think we need to move in the direction of ensuring that people can only post on public forums if they have provided contact details to some authority – so that they can be tracked down easily if they post harmful, untruthful or illegal stuff. But I’m under no illusions that that is difficult and brings up other problems – people who need anonymity for their own safety, for example.

  • Peter Davies 13th Feb '24 - 4:41pm

    I think there is room in the market for a subscriber social medium which requires you to identify yourself to join then gives you content according to your priorities not those of their advertisers.

  • Jenny Barnes 13th Feb '24 - 5:13pm

    A recent double episode of Silent Witness included a social media platform that used AI to feed users made up stuff that made them increasingly angry -although there’s plenty of very angry people around already . The result was a massacre by a police unit in SE Asia.
    It’s important that people are aware that not everything they see on the internet – or any other media – is necessarily true or helpful.

  • Peter Chambers 13th Feb '24 - 6:23pm

    This looks like a very complex problem, given that the FANGs are far too powerful and that we do not like banning things. So, is it urgent – for children – and should we consider a limited pragmatic solution, and not ask the permission of the platforms first?
    This page by Jon Haidt argues that something really needs doing for young people. A smartphone ban in schools?

  • No, It won’t solve the problem. It’ll be circumvented, it’ll have unintended consequences, it’ll negatively affect certain groups of young people (e.g. trans people), not to mention how do you define “social media”. It should be pointed out that some people need anonymity not because they are out to harm others, but because they need to protect themselves from harm.

    A lot of tech services these days incorporate some kind of social element that can be used for both positive and negative purposes. Is a ban going to cover all these, or are there going to be loopholes? Some sites already impose age restrictions (e.g. 13 for streaming service Twitch), but it can’t be effectively enforced.

    The government already wants to restrict certain sites by requiring things like photographic ID and credit card information to be handed over – and we all know how good government agencies and corporate entities are at preventing personal information being compromised and exposed to the world.

    I’m not sure what the answer is, but banning or restricting “social media” based on age won’t be it.

  • Jenny Barnes 14th Feb '24 - 9:55am

    To a significant extent Brianna was mudereed because she was a trans woman. It meant that she was more vulnerable, had a smaller support network, so was looking for friendship as it turned out with someone who had ulterior motives. The murderers were also to some extent motivated by transphobia. Absent the transphobia in society and the murderers, they might have murdered someone else. I believe they had 3 or 4 potential victims lined up. However, Brianna was the easiest. Maybe they would not have murdered anyone, as the opportunity might not then have arisen for any of them.
    It would certainly help if the political class stopped using the existence of trans people as a culture war weapon in a bid to be re-elected. It’s only quite recently that the rhetoric around trans people has become so toxic. Banning social media looks like a distraction.

  • Jenny Barnes 14th Feb '24 - 11:42am
  • How will this be enforced? Are you going to give the police the power to forcibly enter a family home to seize a smartphone they believe has been handed by a parent to a child. Are the police going to have power to seize and check smartphones to make sure there is no unauthorised use.

    It sounds great in theory but it is completely and utterly impractical to enforce.

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