Ohio’s governor recently backed a new initiative called the Social Media Parental Notification Act to address collapsing mental health among young Americans. While well-intentioned, the bill misses the mark as it fails to identify the real causes of declining mental health in children.
Because social media is “leading to the deaths of young people,” Ohio Republicans believe limiting social media access would somehow mitigate the “mental health crisis.” Thus the measure would require social media companies to “create a method to determine whether the user is a child under the age of 16,” obtain verifiable parental or legal guardian consent, and send written confirmation of the consent to said parent or guardian.
But the driving force of the mental health crisis is not social media itself, but isolation. Limiting social media access would hardly reduce its effects. Rather than forcing all social media users to prove they are not children, legislators would be better off focusing on how lack of free play and loneliness-inducing physical infrastructure induce isolation.
In aiming to significantly reduce young Americans’ access to social media, Governor DeWine and Ohio Republicans are merely addressing the symptom of what is a much deeper issue for our youth. One one hand, lack of unstructured time outside of school and the home has cratered young adults’ executive functioning and mental health. On the other hand, car-dependent infrastructure and declining public safety have left online spaces the only spaces left for our children.
Thus, limiting access to social media does little to change these underlying issues and would only leave children more alone. Children can be told to go “touch grass” many times, but so long as children are still deprived of opportunities and places for unstructured human interaction, like playing and hanging out with friends after school, this measure would make children’s mental health even worse.
Before eliminating online social media anonymity in a desperate attempt to reduce social media use among young Americans, we need to ask why our children are so lonely and unhappy in the first place; thanks to the COVID-19 lockdowns and the resulting forced migration of social life to online spaces, 63% of young Americans are suffering significant symptoms of anxiety or depression.
Does our physical infrastructure — how our cities are arranged, the transportation options available for children to use — facilitate or impede social interaction? Does our schooling system — which demands that children deprived of play take mind-altering, highly addictive drugs such as Adderall to remain compliant — leave enough space for our children to not just learn mindless content, but grow as individuals, peers, and eventual citizens? Do our children have the time and freedom they need to make choices, gain confidence, and develop into functioning adults?
The answer to these questions is a resounding no, and cutting off social media access isn’t going to change any of that. We need to build cities and our physical infrastructure to allow our children to meet and play on their own, which means making communities less automobile-dependent for children and safe enough for parents to trust their children to remain unattended.
Though education advocates have long supported longer school days for American children to improve educational outcomes, the reality is American children are spending more and more time in school relative to students across the world with only declining test scores. Instead of expanding school hours to force students to spend more time learning newly mandated critical race theory and social justice curricula, why not let our children be free and play? Even though infrastructure and crime policy changes may take years to take effect, children at the very least enjoy unstructured time after school at school until parents are off work, allowing them to have the freedom to choose to do their homework, socialize, or explore their passions and talents at their own discretion.
Rather than homing in on social media as the enemy, we should turn our attention towards redesigning our cities and schools to facilitate social interaction, encourage personal growth, and foster a generation of resilient, engaged, and mentally healthy citizens. Addressing these issues requires strategic thinking and long-term solutions — not band-aid measures that only exacerbate the very problems they aim to solve.
Kenneth Schrupp is a Young Voices contributor writing on the intersection of business, politics and media. He’s a public affairs consultant and serves as editor in chief of the California Review, an independent political journal.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.