Picture credit: Tom Werner/Getty
Artillery Row

Social media can be good for young people

It has its risks, but what doesn’t?

Mets appeared lonely and isolated to outsiders. The disabled Norwegian child suffered from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a rare disorder that degrades muscles. Mets spent much of his life in a wheelchair in front of a computer.

Yet appearances can be deceptive. Mets began gaming at age 11, spending long nights playing World of Warcraft and Starlight. But much more than that, he became an essential part of an online community. Following his death, Mets’ family was astonished to receive a steady stream of emotional condolences from online friends.

Some of these friends even flew across borders to attend the funeral. “I met Mets in a world where it doesn’t matter a bit who you are, what kind of body you have, or how you look in reality, behind the keyboard,” said Kai Simon, who spoke at the funeral.

I thought of Mets’ on hearing that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is considering a ban on social media for under-16s without permission from their parents. Politicians increasingly paint social media as an unmitigated evil. Yet it’s hard to imagine someone like Mets, and millions like him, being fulfilled without access to online communities.

Social media is essential for young people with niche interests, those who struggle to make friends in school or want to meet people who share their challenges. It’s how we connect with friends and family or even enjoy some frivolous entertainment to escape life’s challenges. It’s the location of educational resources, civic engagement and creative expression.

The debate about young people and social media is often framed in negative terms. There is an understandable instinct to protect from potential harm. Yet this ignores the fact that children have the right to access information, express themselves, make friends, and explore the world.    

Nobody is suggesting that the internet is risk-free. There are malicious actors, bullying and problematic content. But nothing in life is without danger. Letting a child play outside unsupervised carries risk, but it still plays a vital role in development, and nobody could seriously argue for outlawing it.

trying to shield children from all potential harm will make them less resilient

As the “free-range parenting” movement has established, trying to shield children from all potential harm will make them less resilient. The way to manage risks is through education. It’s about building digital literacy, including knowing when to turn off, rather than encouraging parents to delay access to social media and stunting growth. This fiddly policy will make it unnecessarily difficult for young people to access an essential part of the modern world. It also represents yet another step in the creeping state encroachment into family life.

It’s also naive to believe that the government can practically prevent under-16s from social media. Children are often tech-savvy and good at getting around parental restrictions. Many will use fake accounts and access the internet without parental knowledge, creating a false sense of security. What’s needed is parents raising their children, not the state trying to step in to protect children.

If nothing else, highly moderated larger platforms will likely be more effective at preventing children from accessing their services. (This will mean aggressive age verification, asking all users to enter driving licences and passports to access platforms.) But that will leave open offshore platforms outside of the direct scope of UK legislation and less likely to have stringent safety measures. In other words, a ban could shift children towards riskier digital platforms.

There are also definitional problems. The original intent might be to limit under-16s’ use of TikTok and Instagram. But many other platforms involve user-to-user interactions and are included in the definition of “social media”. The Online Safety Act — which has not even been given a chance to work before calls for more regulation — applies to video games, online discussion forums and video-sharing platforms like YouTube, and private communications such as WhatsApp. It even applies to Wikipedia, which involves users communicating and updating pages.

Each of these platforms provides something meaningful to millions of people, including those under sixteen. The idea that they should lose access by default is not just ill-conceived but genuinely saddening.

Towards the end of his life, Mets wrote a blog post about the importance of the digital world. “I boot up the computer, get into position and then I leave this world,” Mets wrote. “It’s not a screen, it’s a gateway to wherever your heart desires.”

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