On Tuesday, Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.) proposed new legislation that would prohibit young people from using social media. His bill, stylized the “Making Age Verification Technology Uniform, Robust, and Effective” (MATURE) Act, is extremely and obviously flawed, as Reason‘s Elizabeth Nolan Brown noted yesterday.
The MATURE Act would require sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube to verify that users are at least 16 years old. That verification process would force social media platforms to scan users’ driver’s licenses or other forms of government-issued identification, thus necessitating a staggering degree of data collection on the part of the companies. Foes of Big Tech who rightly worry about online privacy in the modern age should consider how proposals exactly like this one would greatly exacerbate that problem.
Indeed, this legislation would cause many problems that the tech-skeptical right needs to consider. Do conservatives appreciate just how stunning and sweeping a change it would be to suddenly deny millions of kids and teens access to fundamental—and popular—areas of the internet? This is a radical proposal that would profoundly deny kids access to information and socialization. Young people get their news from YouTube and TikTok. They use the direct messaging functions of Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat to stay in touch with their friends. Facebook has become less popular with Gen Z; even so, there are tens of millions of kids between the ages of 13 and 16 using the platform right now. It would be incredibly naive to think that they get no value out of these services.
Hawley’s legislation does exempt social media sites from seeking age verification of current users, which makes some sense, though could easily create a situation where some young people still have access to a platform even though many of their peers do not. In practice, kids and teenagers will obviously find ways to get around age verification; one of the kinder things that can be said about the MATURE Act is that it might not be very effective.
But the aim of the legislation is really worth some scrutiny, including from Republicans. After all, what exactly is conservative about suddenly blocking millions of kids’ access to the internet? Do conservatives not realize how much of teens’ identities are connected to their social media presence—where their peer networks reside and where their self-expression is actualized?
Elon Musk has called Twitter the digital town square, and Republicans seem to agree with him, which is why they suddenly favor versions of anti-discrimination laws intended to prohibit social media companies from banning conservatives. Does it really make sense to say that 15-year-olds may not access the town square? Are we so sure that teenagers who are a few months away from applying to college and making decisions that will affect their finances and professional prospects for decades can’t be trusted to log on to Facebook?
Foes of social media say that it is harming young people and point to rising rates of depression among teenage girls as one consequence. It is undoubtedly true that some excess amount of social media usage is unhealthy among some number of teenage users, though evidence of causal harm has been wildly exaggerated, including by the so-called Facebook whistleblower. But even if one concedes that too much time on Instagram is a bad thing for some teenage girls, it does not follow that depriving millions of young people of any access to social media would be a boon to teen mental health. On the contrary, abruptly flipping the internet’s off-switch would be a great way to make a whole lot of kids miserable.
We have, in fact, already run this experiment, and it was recently. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, state and local governments placed massive restrictions on young people. They closed schools and delayed or even eliminated extracurricular activities. The most normal and healthy activity for kids—hanging out with friends, in person—was stigmatized. But for kids who found themselves in this soul-crushing reality, social media was a vital mitigator of loneliness. As Reason‘s David McGarry pointed out in a recent article, research shows that young people who were virtually connected to each other during the pandemic had better mental health outcomes than their peers.
It is incredibly reckless to close off what was an incredibly important lifeline for lonely young people just because not all outcomes and usage patterns are ideal. COVID-19 and the U.S. government brought the lives of kids and teens to a standstill; the Hawleys of the world seem to be saying, Try it without the internet as well.
Parents should feel empowered to make their own choices regarding what levels of social media consumption are appropriate for their individual kids. The MATURE Act substitutes their judgment for that of the federal government. It is as contrary to the idea of parental rights as any legislation being offered by Democrats.