Experts are skeptical that Utah’s social media ‘curfew’ law will help children’s mental health

Experts are skeptical that Utah's social media 'curfew' law will help children's mental health

Amid an ongoing youth mental health crisis, Utah has become the first state to enact laws that will strictly limit how and when children are allowed to use social media.

Together, the two laws – collectively known as the Social Media Regulation Act – will prohibit anyone under the age of 18 from using social media between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m.; requiring age verification for anyone in the state using social media and parental consent for those under 18; and giving minors the right to sue big tech companies for specific damages caused by social media. Both Utah laws will go into effect on March 1, 2024.

The link between youth mental health and social media use has been the subject of much research. Earlier last month, some school districts across the country, including in California, filed lawsuits against social media companies like YouTube, Snapchat and TikTok, claiming the companies designed their products to target young people to the detriment of their mental health.

“This bill is an overly protectionist stance that insists on government control over a complex crisis.”

“There’s hard science behind the claim that social media is fueling a mental health epidemic in school-aged children,” said Nancy Magee, superintendent of the Board of Education in San Mateo, Calif. “Every day, schools deal with the fallout, which includes distracted students, increased absences, more children diagnosed with ADHD, cyberbullying that spills over into the classroom, and even physical damage to our schools in San Mateo.” Magee cited a TikTok vandalism challenge as an example.

Public health experts are also concerned. In February, the US Surgeon General warned that 13-year-olds should not be on social media. According to a study published by the American Psychological Association, teenagers who reduced their use of social media by 50% for a few weeks saw their perception of their weight and their appearance improve.

But will prohibitive laws like Utah’s stop the mental health crisis? Some experts say yes, but many fear that a law like Utah’s could do more harm than good.

“This bill is an overly protectionist stance that insists on government control of a complex crisis in order to somehow ‘fix’ the alarming problem of rising rates of depression and ‘anxiety in our young people,’ Linda Charmaraman, senior fellow at the Wellesley Centers for Women and director of the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab, told Salon. “Studies have shown mixed results associating social media use with mental health outcomes – in cases where there is a statistical association, social media use often explains very little about why there are mental health problems .”

As Charmaraman said, the research isn’t entirely clear on the link between mental health and social media use among young people. In 2020, researchers at the University of Texas found that not getting enough validation on social media caused a measurable increase in depression and anxiety. As the study researchers said at the time, much of the research on youth mental health and social media use had indicated correlation, but not necessarily causation. Yet a study published in 2019 concluded that time spent on social media did not directly increase anxiety or depression in adolescents.

“We spent eight years trying to really understand the relationship between time spent on social media and depression in developing adolescents,” lead researcher Sarah Coyne said in a press release at the time. “If they increased their time on social media, would it make them more depressed? Also, if they decreased their time on social media, were they less depressed? The answer is no. We found that the time spent on social media was not what impacted anxiety or depression.”

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The youth mental health crisis is probably not just about social media use. But it certainly seems to play a role, and researchers know that kids and teens spend a lot of time on social media. In 2018, a Pew Research Center survey of nearly 750 13- to 17-year-olds found that 45% are online almost constantly and 97% use a social media platform — and that was before the pandemic.

“Basically, scientific studies have shown that there is no single common culprit that leads to mental health problems, but people often want to find something tangible to blame – it takes a village of parents, d ‘educators, peers and practitioners, as well as policy makers and developers of apps for young people to thrive socially and emotionally in their digital world,” Charmaraman said. She noted that a law like the Utah could, under certain circumstances, “even be detrimental to a young person’s mental health due to their inability to connect with others” and feel a sense of belonging.

Charmaraman said social media can be a “life sanctuary” for teens who don’t have a solid source of social support in real life or who are part of “stigmatized populations” – like LGBTQ.

Psychologist Dr Carla Manly, author of ‘Joy From Fear’ and who works with minors, said that although Utah’s laws are “onerous”, they could be a proactive approach that could yield positive results in the youth mental health.

“Given the seriousness of the youth mental health crisis, we can look to any background information gathered by Utah’s approach to create policies that protect our youth from the negative consequences of social media and support their health. overall mentality,” Manly said. “Given that the brains of children and adolescents are very sensitive to negative influences, it is not surprising that mental health is on the decline among our young people.”

Psychologist Dr. Don Grant, national adviser on healthy device management at Newport Healthcare, told Salon he commends Utah for passing such laws.

“Even if it’s just to speed up the conversation about possible risks of use,” Grant said. “If nothing else, he (Governor Cox) has certainly forced the problem to be tested and seriously explored for the best possible solutions, or even guardrails and palliatives in favor of safety, health and protecting children online.”

“There is mounting evidence (that) social media is absolutely a major contributing factor to the undoubted increase in mental health issues among young people.”

While an “abstinence” approach isn’t the answer, Grant said, he does approve of parents and caregivers being the “gatekeepers” to their child’s social media use.

“While some still seem unconvinced, there is growing evidence and agreement among most experts that social media is absolutely a major contributing factor to the extremely concerning and indisputable increase in health problems. mental health in young people,” Grant said. “I don’t believe any adult who has been engaged on social media for any length of time can honestly doubt this, as adults themselves have reported experiencing deregulation in response to their own social media engagement. “

While Utah’s law is the first in the nation to be so prohibitively prohibitive on social media, it may not be the last. Other states are considering similar laws, including Arkansas, which is considering requiring age verification to use social media platforms. In Connecticut, lawmakers have proposed a bill that would require parental consent.

“There are also several social media-focused proposals and bills currently being discussed by the US Congress and others are currently being worked on by politicians,” Grant said. “Very importantly, it should be noted that while our current Congress has certainly demonstrated partisan division on almost every issue, the phenomenon of their unified agreement ‘crossing the aisle’ on the need to improve online safety for our children suggests how critical this question is.”

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