The Florida House of Representatives recently proposed a bill to ban individuals under the age of 16 from accessing social media platforms, accompanied by a mandate for age verification across the board. This step aims to mitigate concerns related to addiction and exposure to harmful content among young users. Florida is not alone, as the US state of Utah had already announced plans to introduce age verification for all social media users under 18. Those under 18 need parental consent in order to use the app. Any social media platform with over 5 million accounts will be forced to comply.

As the debate surrounding this legislative decision unfolds, it prompts us to ponder the effectiveness of such measures in addressing the complex challenges posed by social media. This article delves into the potential benefits and drawbacks of banning under-16s from social media, coupled with age verification, and explores whether this strategy aligns with the broader goal of safeguarding the well-being of the younger generation.

Potential Benefits

The proponents of banning minors from social media platforms argue that it can shield young minds from the potential harms associated with excessive screen time and exposure to inappropriate content. According to a recent study by Aura over 60% of parents are concerned about the potential negative effects of social media on their child, including addiction, receiving predatory messages and exposure to explicit material. Over 65% of parents claimed that their children have experienced negative effects of social media. Parental controls can be somewhat ineffective, especially with parents who aren’t tech savvy. Banning minors from social media altogether does take a huge step towards preventing these potential harms. 

Age verification adds an extra layer of protection, ensuring that users are of the specified age before accessing these platforms. Age verification measures can significantly reduce the likelihood of underage users encountering explicit material or falling victim to cyberbullying. Even if some children find ways to bypass the measures, the vast majority of children will not. As recognised by Utah Governor Spencer Cox “We don’t expect that we’re going to be able to prevent every young person from getting around this”. This move is not a silver bullet but is rather a preventive measure, reducing the likelihood of underage users encountering explicit material or falling victim to cyberbullying. 

Additionally, age verification measures can empower parents to have better control over their children’s online activities. By providing a secure mechanism for verifying the age of users, parents can make informed decisions about when and how their children engage with social media. Utah’s example serves as a testament to the potential efficacy of such regulations in fostering a safer online environment for minors.

Criticisms

Conversely, the proposed ban and age verification requirements are not without their critics. Privacy concerns loom large as individuals worry about the amount of personal information that social media platforms would have access to under these regulations. Regulators across the globe are striving to clampdown on data collection by social media firms. Compelling age verification for all users would give these social media firms excessive access to data. Furthermore, as will be required in Utah, where parents need to provide consent, presumably ID verification on parents will also be required. This creates an additional mountain of data that comes into possession of social media companies whose most coveted assets are user data. 

Critics argue that this could potentially be exploited, raising questions about the ethical implications of gathering extensive user data. Furthermore, sceptics point out that determined minors might find ways to circumvent these restrictions, rendering the ban ineffective. There have been legal cases which demonstrated age verification methods. The Communications Decency Act that was struck down by the Supreme Court in the 1997 case Reno v. ACLU. The Act attempted to introduce age verification on certain websites by using credit card checks to protect minors. The Supreme Court however, acknowledged the minors with credit card access would not be protected so the Act does not provide adequate protection. According to a recent study published in the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) 44% of teenagers admitted to lying about their age online to access age-restricted platforms (link). History has shown that where there is a will, there is often a way, and tech-savvy individuals may discover loopholes to access social media platforms even with stringent age restrictions in place. 

The US states implementing these bans also face legal challenges against their plans. Some analysts have argued that the bans could constitute a breach of the right to free speech, protected under the US First Amendment. Users will no longer have any anonymity on social media platforms. In the US, the Supreme Court has affirmed on many occasions that a right to anonymity is enshrined within the First Amendment. This argument turns on whether social media constitutes a public or private platform. We explored this matter in our previous article. 

Conclusion 

Taking all this into account, banning adolescents’ social media and implementing age verification could go some way to addressing the challenges of addiction and exposure to harmful content. While the intentions behind such measures are commendable, the complexities of the digital landscape suggest that a one-size-fits-all approach may not be the panacea. Striking a balance between safeguarding the well-being of young users and respecting privacy rights is paramount.

Education and parental guidance also play crucial roles in shaping a positive online experience for children. A nuanced and multifaceted strategy that incorporates these elements may be more effective in addressing the concerns at hand. The plans laid out by various US states prompt a broader conversation about the intersection of technology, legislation, and the well-being of our younger generation, challenging us to find innovative and inclusive solutions that protect without impeding growth.