Growing push for governments to fight social media control over children

While federal policy often appears “top-down,” some issues enter the national agenda from lower levels. We are seeing this with the growing concern to protect children from the harmful effects of social media.

This week, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese sympathized with calls to limit children’s access to social media, while last week’s budget allocated funding for an age verification test, originally recommended by the eSafety Commissioner . In November, the government also brought forward the scheduled review of the Online Safety Act by one year.

But overall, the federal government has lagged behind states and parent activists on an issue that has immense ramifications for a young generation that has been experiencing higher levels of stress and mental health problems.

South Australian Premier Peter Malinauskas recently said his government will legislate, if possible, to ban children under 14 from accessing social media accounts. For those ages 14 to 15, parental consent would be needed.

This week Malinauskas held talks in Washington with US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy on the issue. The premier later told the Adelaide Advertiser that Murthy had backed the SA plan. “He (Dr Murthy) was basically saying that governments have no time to waste because this is now creating almost a mental health emergency among young people.” Murthy also told him that young people were more open to the idea of ​​quitting social media than previously thought, if their friends were too.

In New South Wales, Premier Chris Minns this week announced a summit to be held in October “to address the increasing harm that online platforms are causing to children and young people.”

In the Minns electorate of Kogarah, in Sydney’s south, there has been intense activity on the issue. A group of parents with children from Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Primary School and St Ursula’s College met a few years ago to discuss the possibility of delaying their children’s access to smartphones and social media.

Father Dany Elachi, whose daughter was ten years old at the time, told me that they thought concerted action gave them the best chance of “staying the course” against the pressure of their children’s complaints or pleas that “everyone else “They had a smartphone.

The parents’ group had no connection to Minns, then opposition leader, until they read an article by him in the local newspaper. His concerns coincided with theirs and they approached him.

The Heads Up Alliance is now a national movement of thousands of Australian parents delaying the use of smartphones and social media for their children.

The group put pressure on Catholic authorities and there is now a widespread ban on mobile phones in Sydney Catholic schools.

Minns, as premier last year, implemented a ban on mobile phones in New South Wales public schools. All states and territories have acted on phone bans, with Queensland and the ACT falling into line earlier this year.

These have been important steps, but perhaps easy. Stronger action means greater challenges for Big Tech and its revenue streams and customers. Capturing children is essential for their business models.

The Albanian government has already gotten a taste of what it can be like to take on Big Tech in its fight with Elon Musk over the eSafety Commissioner’s demand that X (formerly Twitter) remove a post showing the stabbing of a bishop in a Sydney Assyrian church .

Tougher action on social media management is one area where potential bipartisanship should be possible. Opposition communications spokesman David Coleman has been a strong advocate for child protection and age verification.

The NSW summit will be attended by senior officials, academics, representatives from other jurisdictions and people from major social media platforms.

The idea of ​​age-limited access to social media (the next logical step) is sure to be a hot topic.

While states have been at the forefront, to have any prospects of functioning properly, any legislated ban on youth access to social networking sites must be national. It is likely that constitutional limitations will also have to be overcome. Minns has expressed doubt that a ban would be enforceable at the state level.

Some social media companies argue that they do not allow children under 13 to create accounts. But this has been unenforceable, even assuming that companies wanted to enforce it.

Albanese said: “We want to make sure that any changes that are made actually work. If you want, you don’t want them to bypass them through the side door.

That’s right, to a certain extent. It should not be an excuse to avoid action. In reality, no prohibition is likely to be absolutely foolproof.

Critics of the ban cite privacy, concerned about the type of information that would be given to technology companies to establish a user’s age. But in many circumstances it is necessary to prove age and several methods could be used to minimize the privacy problem.

Additionally, some critics say social media is important, especially for young people who need connection; They say it would be detrimental to deny them this. This is about weighing one side against the other: the negative aspects of social media versus the positive aspects for young people.

In his recent and widely publicized book, The Anxious Generation, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that Generation Z (born after 1995) has been “reprogrammed.” He calls them “the anxious generation.”

With a combination of overprotective parents and the ubiquity of modern technology, Haidt says we’ve seen a shift from a “play-based childhood” to a “phone-based childhood.”

“Generation Z became the first generation in history to go through puberty with a portal in their pocket that took them away from the people close to them and into an alternative universe that was exciting, addictive, unstable and (…) unsuitable for children and adolescents. ” writes Haidt.

He maintains that this had serious consequences for their mental health, since girls were especially harmed by social networks, and boys more by pornography and video game addiction.

While Haidt writes primarily about the American scene, he includes findings from other Western countries, which he says show similar trends.

Haidt prescribes four lines of action. Parents should not give smartphones to their children before high school. Children should not be on social media before they are 16 years old. Schools should be phone-free. Children should have more unsupervised play and more childhood independence.

Those who fear that social media, for all its advantages, could be a serious threat to young people, will believe that much more needs to be done than we are doing now. The burden is not something that the government, schools or other authorities can bear alone. Parents must also do their part. But parents need the help of institutions to do so.

Back at ground zero in the battle to curb the damage of social media, Dany and his wife have “stayed the course.” His daughter, now almost 15, does not have a smartphone or a social media account. “We bought him a basic phone,” says Dany. “But it’s so unattractive that she rarely wears it.”