Decades ago, when Chuck Berry was duck-walking across the stage and Elvis Presley was suggestively shaking his hips, many parents sought to ban rock ‘n’ roll. Several generations later, rock is still with us and Elvis’ gyrations seem positively pedestrian.
The point is that banning something embraced by teens as an identifying generational trait is a fruitless exercise. And yet, the details behind popular social media app TikTok warrant attention from parents and government officials.
TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company, leading to concern that the Chinese government could use the app to collect personal data about millions of Americans. TikTok has been banned for use on work devices by federal employees and government employees in 34 states, with the prohibitions presented as a matter of national security.
“It’s not that we know TikTok has done something, it’s that distrust of China and awareness of Chinese espionage has increased,” said James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The context for TikTok is much worse as trust in China vanishes.”
That has various governments atwitter about what to do. Montana recently became the first state to legislate a complete ban of TikTok. Starting next year, it will be illegal to download the app in the state, although it is not clear how that will be enforced.
At the congressional level, a bipartisan group of senators has introduced legislation to prohibit children under the age of 13 from using social media; children from 13 to 18 would require parental permission.
“Enough is enough,” said Sen. Katie Britt, R-Ala. “The time to act is now.” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., added: “I just feel like we’ve reached this point where doing nothing is not an option. And increasingly, when members of Congress go home, this is one of the first or second issues that they’re hearing about from their constituents.”
Indeed, social media can have a negative impact on teenagers. As U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy wrote this week in an opinion piece for The Washington Post: “The bottom line is we do not have enough evidence to conclude that social media is sufficiently safe for our kids. In fact, there is increasing evidence that social media use during adolescence — a critical stage of brain development — is associated with harm to mental health and well-being.”
Protecting children is an important task of lawmakers at all levels of government. But parents also bear a role in monitoring the use of social media and modeling appropriate behavior. The American Psychological Association specifically recommends that teens avoid social media that include counts of “likes,” and urges parents to speak with their children about social media use.
Yet while the debate about social media becomes a national talking point, we are intrigued by legislation that was considered this year in the Washington Legislature. Senate Bill 5626 focused on media literacy in schools but also included provisions for “digital citizen” education, focusing on online behavior. The bill passed the Senate 44-4 but was not taken up by the House.
“It’s really critical as we navigate these times that we empower our students to be ready to take on this information and be critical thinkers,” sponsor Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, said.
Lawmakers should reconsider the legislation in the future while also addressing the impact of social media. Because the world is much more complex and perilous than when gyrating hips were scandalous.