A cloud of soulless bots has devoured our grandest dreams. How do we live now?
Yes, social media really is that dangerous.
Despite all the damage it has done to society, particularly to young people, it’s surprisingly tricky to argue for restrictions on social media. It’s not that the problem is too subtle or abstract, but social media has become so ubiquitous and vast that it’s difficult to even frame the problem in a way that allows for practical solutions. Nearly everyone uses social media, and it has virtually become a necessity to function in the modern world.
The Institute for Family Studies recently issued a set of five legislative proposals that would limit kids’ access to social media and adult websites. The proposals are modest, but clear: age verification, parental oversight for all online contracts, full parental access to minors’ social media accounts, a curfew for social usage, and a legal path for users to hold social media companies accountable.
These proposals would go a long way in curbing some of the pernicious effects of social media on youth. Though many, including politicians, judges, and social libertarian observers, would argue that parents, not the government, are responsible for their children’s technology habits, in reality external influences inevitably undermine such efforts. So much of culture is now channeled through social media platforms that limiting access to these sites is the equivalent to limiting access to the world one lives in. This shouldn’t be the case, but it is, and it makes a parent’s effort to keep their kids off social media that much harder. The laws proposed by IFS could at least support parents in this uphill battle, making it possible to give kids a screen-free childhood.
The IHS report compares social media to cigarettes, which were defended by Big Tobacco the way Facebook and TikTok are defended now. The big difference is that social media is far worse than cigarettes, but far less visible. It’s easy enough to sense something’s wrong when one can smell the ash and tar on a chain smoker, see his yellowing skin and teeth, and hear his voice become raspy and weak. It’s a bit harder to sense that kind of danger in a boy sharing a silly meme with his friends.
But the danger is there. That same boy is exposed to relentless propaganda on TikTok, threatened by predators and creeps on Snapchat, and subjected to all kinds of advertisements on Instagram. Not only will time on these platforms render that child a boring dullard, it will hijack his brain chemistry, manipulate his appetites, and isolate him from his friends. It appears increasingly likely that, by the time he becomes a teenager, he will have rejected all responsibilities, cultivated a profound fear and resentment of people around him, and developed a porn addiction. At that point, more extreme behaviors, directed at his community or himself, are apt to follow. At what point is a parent unwilling to run that risk?
This may sound like hyperbole, but a number of studies (and personal experience) confirm such a grim prognosis. I’ve seen too many bright students filled with potential and ambition fall prey to that little screen in their pocket. Along with other teachers, I do what I can to keep them innocent and focused on what will help them, and sometimes we succeed, but others stubbornly continue their habit and suffer the consequences.
However, for all that, most adults will nevertheless be skeptical of just how bad the situation is. After all, the world is still here, people still do more or less the same things they always have, and these cries of impending doom sound a lot like false alarms from previous decades. It’s easier to say this when one doesn’t have kids—and the majority of adults don’t nowadays—but there are answers to these objections.
First, it’s a mistake to assume that the world, as we know it, is still here. Perhaps the physical world hasn’t gone anywhere—there’s still electricity, running water, and fast-food restaurants—but the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual worlds really are passing away. Despite being more educated than ever before, people don’t read anymore and they’ve lost their ability to reason about basic issues. This leads to stunted maturity and chronic frustration, which fuels anxiety and depression. As for living a moral life geared towards the transcendent, many people now lack the capacity even to formulate the question.
Similarly, on a general level, it’s true that people do at least some of the same things as in past generations, like going to school, getting a job, making friends, finding love, and having a family. But all these activities are in notable decline. On average, adults are marrying less and having fewer children. They are working less, and—despite the many years spent in school and college—they are learning less. In short, there’s an increasing number of able-bodied adults stuck in “prolonged adolescence” who spend their days consuming media rather than growing up or building anything lasting.
And yes, there have always been Chicken Littles who predict doom with each new innovation and are often proven wrong. However, as Pete Hegseth wisely notes in his recent bestselling book Battle for the American Mind, the negative changes impacting young people often rear their ugly heads a couple of decades later when those children grow up and make their mark on the world. It’s no coincidence that the radical environmentalism and identity politics taught to kids in the ‘90s and ‘00s have become today’s conventional wisdom.
One could say that the Millennials (my generation) are just a small preview of what’s to come from Generation Z and Generation Alpha. We may think the millennials are whiny, immature, and, in the words of Mark Bauerlein, have proven themselves to be “the dumbest generation” so far. It will be much worse with adults who were raised by social media and owned a smartphone their whole lives. Dystopian moves now seen as outlandish, like enhancing our brains with neuralinks, uploading our consciousness into the Metaverse, or eating bugs and foregoing reproduction to save the planet, will seem like pretty good ideas in the hollowed-out decades to come.
In addition to calling for action from state and federal governments, it’s up to all of us—not just parents, and not just the government—to diminish the influence and effect of social media and screens. Our widespread complacence has already done enough damage on the two generations who have grown up with screens and the internet. They have already lost more than they can ever realize, and it’ll be impossible to remedy this in the short-term. Nevertheless, if we can all wake up to the problem now, change our habits, and model what a healthy use of technology looks like for our kids, there’ll be hope for them and those who come afterward.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.