Parenthood has always been fraught with worry and guilt, but parents in the age of social media have increasingly confronted a distinctly acute kind of powerlessness. Their kids are unwitting subjects in a remarkable experiment in human social forms, building habits and relationships in an unruly environment designed mostly to maximize intense engagement in the service of advertisers.
It’s not that social media has no redeeming value, but on the whole, it is no place for kids. If Instagram and TikTok were brick-and-mortar spaces in your neighborhood, you probably would never let even your teenager go to them alone. Parents should have the same say over their children’s presence in these virtual spaces.
We may have the vague impression that that would be impossible, but it isn’t. There is a plausible, legitimate, effective tool at our society’s disposal to empower parents against the risks of social media: We should raise the age requirement for social media use, and give it real teeth.
It might come as a surprise to most Americans that there is an age requirement at all. But the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, enacted in 1998, prohibits American companies from collecting personal information from children under 13 without parental consent, or to collect more personal information than they need to operate a service aimed at children under 13. As a practical matter, this means kids under 13 can’t have social media accounts — since the business models of the platforms all depend on collecting personal data. Technically, the major social media companies require users to be older than 12.