The scandal of screens
Parents are ill-equipped to fight the power of Big Tech over children’s lives — they desperately need the law to be on their side
An inquest into the death of 14-year-old Mia Janin has concluded that she took her own life following horrific bullying including on Snapchat and TikTok. Readers will recall the equally tragic story of Molly Russell, another apparently happy 14-year-old who committed suicide in 2017 after consuming vast amounts of self-harm content on Instagram. Stories like these are every parent’s worst nightmare, but they are becoming more and more frequent. In the UK the suicide rate for 15-19s has doubled for boys since 2010 and trebled for girls. Of course, ‘successful’ suicides are still mercifully rare, but by every conceivable measure of wellbeing — incidences of self-harm, prevalence of negative or depressive feelings, loneliness, feelings of failure — teenage happiness is following a steel downward trend.
On Wednesday I asked the Prime Minister if the time had come to consider a ban on social media for under 16s
It is widely acknowledged that we have a problem with children’s mental health. But while conservatives have been largely silent about the possible causes, the left lay the blame on post-2010 Conservative administrations, and a decline in mental health services driven by the ‘nasty Tory’ austerity budgets. I’m not going to defend the very real cuts to local authority budgets but, as an explanation for the sharp increase in teen mental health disorders this is completely inadequate. The pattern of rapid decline in adolescent wellbeing is almost identical in the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand where governments of all flavours have been in power over the last decade and a half.
So what is driving this epidemic of teen anxiety and depression across the Anglosphere?
Since 2010, smartphone ownership and social media usage have grown rapidly, and both now have an almost ubiquitous place in the lives of children and young people. It is clear from the work of Jonathan Haidt and others that social media use — with the resulting exposure to harmful content and loss of face-to-face relationships, time outdoors and sleep — is the most likely culprit for this collapse in teen wellbeing.
Whether it’s the lonely nine-year-old who finds himself with no one to play with because his friends spend their evenings on TikTok, the 14-year-old boy with a devastating porn addiction, the 15-year-old girl groomed bullied into uploading explicit pictures that are sent round the school, or the 13-year-old girl finding 101 ways to become anorexic, smartphone and social media are robbing our children of their childhood.
No sane society can let this continue. None of these trends are plateauing – the steep lines plotting the misery of our children are still following an upward trajectory. Smartphone ownership continues to rise with 20 per cent of three- to four-year-olds and 55 per cent of 8 to 10 year olds now owning their own phone. Just this week it was reported that British children use TikTok on average for more than two hours a day, a doubling since just 2020. It is thought that an astonishing 60 per cent of young men suffer problematic pornography consumption (average age of first exposure is 13), and half of child sexual abuse is now perpetrated by another child.
If we do not step in and rescue our children, the future is bleak. A significant proportion are emerging into adulthood addicted, depressed, purposeless, unable to concentrate or conduct a normal, fulfilling relationship. The personal cost for millions are huge and the social and economic impacts will be stark.
So what can be done? The Online Safety Act passed by Parliament in 2023 will make some progress in holding tech companies to account. This legislation confers enhanced duties on social media bosses to prevent under-13s from joining their platforms, remove certain classes of harmful content and implement robust age verification for adult sites. But these new laws barely scratch the surface and, even if they are successful in reducing the volume of harmful material online, they won’t end the consequences of kids having the technological equivalent of a class A drug in their pockets. A recent study found that the average child receives 237 phone notifications per day — that’s once every four minutes of their waking hours — with each ‘ping’ a potential new dopamine hit, telling them they’re loved, loathed, being mocked, judged or invited to ‘click here’.
We recall historical failures to protect children with horror. Why did society allow children as young as five to be exploited down mines? How could so many have turned a blind eye to child prostitution? In the same way, we will look back on this 21st century abandonment of our children to technological abuse and wonder how we fell asleep at the wheel. But just as the Victorians took decisive action when the full horrors of child exploitation scandals became widely known, we must also act now, to save this and future generations from irreversible harm.
That’s why on Wednesday in the House of Commons I asked the Prime Minister if the time had come to consider a ban on social media – and perhaps even smartphones – for under 16s. In response I have been called both a fascist by the hard left and a communist by the libertarian right, suggesting that such a policy might have broad appeal to those with more moderate views.
Those on the left would benefit from reading some history. But those on the right, whose criticisms are that I’m advocating for a nanny state and that it should be up to parents to decide whether their children use social media, must engage in a much-needed debate about the role of Government in protecting children from harm.
Ordinary mums and dads are completely unequipped to do battle with the Goliaths of Meta, TikTok and Apple
Let me be clear: I am absolutely opposed to any attempt by the State to supplant the rightful responsibilities of parents. For this reason I recently criticised the Labour party’s daft proposal for universal supervised child tooth-brushing by infant school teachers. Robbing parents of their duties is counterproductive (absolving people of responsibility tends to make them less responsible) and, however imperfect mums and dads may be, the State is always a terrible alternative.
But while socialists are wrong to believe that the state should supplant parents, libertarians are equally wrong to think the state has no role at all in child protection, or — according to Nigel Farage — that children should have the same freedoms as adults.
Conservatives like me, on the other hand, believe that only good government — as opposed to no government or big government — can properly create the conditions that make us happy, safe and free. The reason that most parents are successful in keeping their children safe from offline dangers – whether those dangers are routine like crossing roads or extreme like abduction by paedophiles — is because society has pooled the responsibility for regulation, policing and security in the vehicle of the state.
Take road regulation for example. Imagine if there were no speed limits, no traffic lights, no particular side of the road on which you legally must drive and no consequences for dangerous driving. In such circumstances no parent, however dedicated and diligent, could possibly teach their child to cross the road safely. Or consider a world in which drugs were freely available to children with no restriction or punishment for those who supply. What mother or father could prevent their teenage child from addiction?
Safe societies need Governments to regulate and legislate. And as a conservative, I believe the threshold for State intervention is reached when the ordinary citizen, family, community – in this case parents – cannot reasonably be expected to protect themselves and their loved ones from a particular threat. And just as ordinary families cannot privately mount a defence against unregulated highways, unpoliced streets or invasion by a foreign power, they also cannot stand up against the international might of Big Tech.
Ordinary mums and dads are completely unequipped to do battle with the Goliaths of Meta, TikTok and Apple, whose wealth eclipses the GDP of all but six countries on earth. These companies produce products that are designed to get kids hooked and profit from their data and attention. It is simply fanciful to expect parents to be able to protect children in these circumstances. Even those that are able to resist the enormous social pressure for their child to own a smartphone can’t stop their son or daughter’s classmates from showing them hardcore pornography in the playground.
Immersing our children in this savage and anarchic Wild West is not freedom
Earlier this week, former social media executive Arturo Béjar visited parliament to meet MPs and peers concerned about this issue. Béjar bravely blew the whistle on his former employer Meta, revealing how the company has the technological tools to remove the Instagram accounts of under 13s but refuses to do so. Béjar claims that Meta is fully aware of the threats their platforms pose to children and can even quantify the risks, for example 1 in 8 Instagram users aged 13-15 have received an unwanted sexual advance in the last week.
Of course mums, dads, teachers and grandparents have a role to play in monitoring screen and internet use, but no one raises children in cultural isolation and we are parenting in an age of extraordinary technological upheaval. Just like at the advent of the industrial revolution, or the invention of the motorcar, these new technologies — and those who exploit them unethically — pose a threat to children and societies must find collective ways to regulate them.
Smartphones and social media connect our children to an online world where fools and predators rule because we have not yet found a way to translate centuries-old social rules and customs to the internet. Immersing our children in this savage and anarchic Wild West is not freedom. However well meaning, those who claim that social media is good for children, or that banning it is ‘censorship’ are Zuckerberg’s useful idiots and history will not treat them well.
We must follow Florida’s lead and ban social media for under 16s. And, if this does not curb the addictive and omnipresent power of smartphones (where pornography and self-harm can still be viewed through web browsers), then we may need to ban smartphones for children too. The only question is how we do that, and as with all new legislation we must have extensive public and parliamentary debate and scrutiny. But please let’s start that process now, before any more precious young lives are consumed by the monstrous and rapacious greed of Big Tech.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe