Senator Josh Hawley (R, MO) is pushing for legal age restrictions for social media usage. He has introduced two bills, the first being called the Making Age-Verification Technology Uniform, Robust, and Effective Act (MATURE) and the second being The Federal Social Media Research Act. The MATURE Act would require social media companies to verify that any new users are at least 16 years of age or older before signing up with an account. In a press release, Hawley said that the Act is an attempt to protect children from harmful social media effects. “Children suffer every day from the effects of social media. At best, Big Tech companies are neglecting our children’s health and monetizing their personal information. At worst, they are complicit in their exploitation and manipulation. It’s time to give parents the weapons they need to strike back.”
The Federal Social Media Research Act would commission a report from the government on the harms of social media to children. In 2021, The Washington Post obtained internal documents from Facebook showing the harm caused to teen girls who used the photo-sharing app Instagram. The study found that 32% of girls who felt bad about their bodies felt that Instagram worsened the problem. 40% of users who felt unattractive stated the feeling began when they began using the app. One Instagram research manager described teens’ reliance on social media as almost compulsive, saying, “Teens told us that they don’t like the amount of time they spend on the app but feel like they have to be present. They often feel ‘addicted’ and know that what they’re seeing is bad for their mental health but feel unable to stop themselves.”
Social media use amongst individuals under 18 is widespread. A Pew Research Center study found that teen access to smartphones for those aged 13-17 had jumped from 73% in 2014-2015 to 95% in 2022. 98% of teens aged 15-17 had access to smartphones, while 91% of teens aged 13-14 did. 67% of US teens have used TikTok at least in some capacity, while 95% have used YouTube. Instagram and Snapchat were close behind, with 62% and 59%, respectively. While 55% of teens said they spend just the right amount of time using social media, 36% said they used it too much, while only 8% said too little. 54% of teens say it would be hard to give up social media. Another poll found that 32% of parents reported that their children aged 7-9 use social media.
The use of social media in children has brought on many questions about its effects on their development. Some studies have shown students developing tics and movement disorders from TikTok. Social media can increase anxiety, lower self-esteem, and increase irritability. Furthermore, social media use can open up children to cyberbullying and predators. As Senator Hawley said to Sean Hannity when discussing his proposed legislation, “Put [parents] back in the driver’s seat. I’ve got three kids. You know, parents all over the country would love to know that these companies cannot target their children, cannot let them open accounts until they’re 16 years of age. Let’s protect our kids when they’re at their most vulnerable.”