Toney and Brandy Roberts, the parents of Englyn Roberts, thought they had done everything right when they gave their teenage daughter a smartphone. They told her not to download social-media apps like Instagram and TikTok. They required her to share her password and checked her phone regularly for apps or other questionable content.
But Englyn was able to outsmart them, accessing Instagram and TikTok without their knowledge. And in the midst of some boy troubles, her use of social media helped lead her down a very dark path. A friend shared an Instagram video on suicide, Englyn’s father Toney told 60 Minutes. “And that video was a lady on Instagram pretending to hang herself, and that’s ultimately what our child did. You ask yourself, how did she come up with this idea? And then when I did the research, there it was. She saw it on Instagram.”
“If that video [hadn’t been] sent to her, because she copied it, she wouldn’t have had a way of knowing how to do that certain way of hanging yourself,” her mom, Brandy, said. In the wake of this tragedy, Meta, Instagram’s parent company, said they are making every effort to protect children from harmful content on the social-media site. But a CBS News producer impersonating a 13-year-old was able to get on Instagram easily and access content promoting self-harm and anorexia.
Englyn’s death is but one dramatic example of the toll social media are exacting on America’s teens. A mounting body of evidence indicates social media are a big factor in skyrocketing rates of anxiety and depression among adolescents, especially teenage girls, with these rates surging since 2010, when smartphones became widely available. Depression more than doubled in this same period, from 12 percent in 2010 to 26 percent today, for teen girls. Teen suicide among girls has risen to a 40-year high and, just this week, the CDC released a new report indicating that almost three in five teenage girls felt persistent sadness in 2021 — the highest rates of sadness recorded in a decade.
So, what’s the answer? We must treat Big Tech the way we dealt with Big Tobacco at the end of the last century — as an industry whose access to a vulnerable population, our teens, must be curtailed. Unfortunately, Congress has failed to find common ground to pass a new version of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act that would make it easier for parents to protect teens from the harms of Big Tech.
Because Congress has not passed new legislation to address this mounting mental-health challenge, red states such as Utah, Texas, and now Florida are moving to step in. The moment is right. Just as with Big Tobacco in the 1970s, growing numbers of American parents can see the truth: Social-media use is harmful, especially to minors. And they are looking for lawmakers to act. In fact, a new YouGov poll sponsored by the Institute for Family Studies found that more than 80 percent of parents would support laws requiring Big Tech companies to get parental permission before allowing teens like Englyn access to social media. What’s noteworthy about this poll is not only that parental support for action on Big Tech crossed partisan lines but also that no family-policy idea garnered as much support in this poll of American parents as a proposal to have the government take action to give parents more power over their children’s access to social media.
Public sentiment like this is driving governors and lawmakers in Utah, Texas, and now Florida to act. States place age limitations on numerous activities such as smoking, drinking alcohol, driving, gambling, and entering an enforceable contract. In Utah, Governor Spencer Cox, a Republican, proposed a teens-and-tech agenda in January that included age verification and parental controls, a ban on algorithms targeting children, and a publicly funded education campaign to alert parents and teens to the dangers posed by social media. His agenda was shaped in part by a report, Protecting Teens from Big Tech: Five Policy Ideas for States, that one of us (Wilcox) co-authored.
Pointing to the government’s experience with Big Tobacco, Governor Cox said, “We’re hoping to have that same awakening with other policy-makers. Government is not going to solve all of our problems . . . but it can help us as parents, as individuals, as families to take collective action. If your kid came home at 13 with a cigarette right now . . . you’d probably freak out, right? We’re doing the same thing” with social media. The legislature in Utah just passed two bills targeting social media in response to Cox’s leadership on the tech issue.
Legislators in Texas are also advancing new legislation designed to protect kids from Big Tech. For instance, a groundbreaking bill just filed in Texas would prohibit social-media companies from granting access to minors. This would define a social-media platform as an age-limited product harmful to minors — just like tobacco. In this session, Texas lawmakers have also introduced bills to limit algorithmic targeting of minors; curb the use of social media to engage in prostitution and human trafficking; require age verification for pornographic websites; and place default filters on electronic devices.
Of course, just like Big Tobacco, Big Tech has its defenders. Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook and CEO of Meta) says social media can be “generally positive” for young people’s mental health. Tell that to the parents who are suing the social-media giants for suicides and deaths related to the use of platforms like TikTok and Instagram, including Englyn Roberts’s parents, not to mention the parents who have expressed overwhelming support for new government action on the tech issue.
But because Congress has failed to pass new legislation to rein in Big Tech and give more power to parents to protect their kids from the industry’s worst excesses, it has fallen to states, primarily red ones, to step in and look for ways to give greater power to parents to protect their children. Just last month, Governor Ron DeSantis jumped into the fray with a promise to introduce a legislative agenda this month that would protect “minors from online harms.” He has not spelled out his agenda in detail, but he’s sure to add his own signature policies to advance what has been up until now a largely red-state effort to tame Big Tech. Given the stakes for the country’s kids, especially teenage girls like Englyn Roberts, this growing wave of red-state reform on teens and tech cannot come quickly enough.