Social Media Is ‘Digital Fentanyl’ for Youth, Lawmakers Say in Calling for Restrictions

The topic is driving discussion in Democratic-led cities, GOP-controlled states, and everywhere in between.

AP/Haven Daley
Logos of social media platforms. AP/Haven Daley

“Digital fentanyl,” “public health hazard,” “environmental toxin” — that is the kind of language being used by lawmakers and politicians to describe social media’s effects on youth, as renewed calls for action emerge. It’s an issue driving discussion everywhere from Democratic-led cities to GOP-controlled states. 

This week, though, New York City became the first major American metropolis to declare a public health emergency over social media. The same day, Wednesday, Florida’s house passed legislation — now heading to the state senate — that would ban social media for youths under 16. 

“Just as the surgeon general did with tobacco and guns, we are treating social media like other public health hazards and ensuring that tech companies take responsibility for their products,” Mayor Adams said in his State of the City speech on Wednesday, adding that there is an increasing need to “protect our students” from the “growing dangers” of TikTok, Facebook, and YouTube, which are “designing their platforms with addictive and dangerous features.” 

“We cannot stand by and let Big Tech monetize our children’s privacy and jeopardize their mental health,” he said

In Florida, lawmakers are pushing ahead with a strict ban on social media platforms for minors under 16, calling out similar public health concerns. 

“These dopamine hits are so addictive, it’s like a digital fentanyl, and even the most plugged in parent or attuned teen has a hard time shutting the door against these addictive features,” a state representative sponsoring the measure, Fiona McFarland, said on the house floor. 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation tells the Sun it strongly opposes Florida’s ban. As similar restrictions get under way in other states, the group cites serious First Amendment and censorship concerns over the government blocking “access to lawful speech on websites.” 

Yet others say the action from the government is needed, and state efforts are encouraging a federal response, including the Kids Online Safety Act.

It’s “getting harder” to ignore the data showing the “unique harms these platforms pose to kids,” an attorney and president of the Digital Progress Institute, Joel Thayer, tells the Sun. 

Social media is linked to depression, poor body image, isolation, anxiety, and suicide, he notes, referring to a study indicating that 6 percent of American teenagers’ desire to commit suicide can be traced directly to Instagram. 

“The deaths aren’t limited to suicides,” Mr. Thayer notes. “TikTok challenges have led to a slew of accidental deaths.,” including a 13-year-old dying from a Benadryl challenge, a “Blackout Challenge” where children choke each other, and a “Beezin’ challenge” where they rub Burt’s Bees chapstick into their eyelids to get a buzz, he says. 

As lawmakers take action, they’re running into hurdles from Big Tech lobbyists who take them to court, Mr. Thayer adds. One of the main legal problems is that states are making errors such as selective application of laws to certain apps and not others.

“Arkansas’s law applies to Instagram, but for some reason doesn’t apply to Google’s YouTube,” he says, and some age verification requirements don’t include regulating the app stores themselves. “This has made it easier for tech companies to make First Amendment claims in court.” 

As legislators attempt to regulate the platforms, “kids’ online safety requires a holistic approach,” Mr. Thayer says, and they shouldn’t “cherry pick” companies, since all of them are collecting data on youth. 

“I think we are on the verge of getting some of these laws in place,” he adds. “It’s just a matter of when.”

The New York Sun

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