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GOP lawmakers seek social media age restrictions amid findings linking screen time, suicide risk

"Screen usage could lead to social isolation, cyberbullying, and sleep disruption, which could worsen mental health," said one of the authors of the study. 

Published: March 12, 2023 7:40pm

Updated: March 13, 2023 5:07am

Last month, bills prohibiting access to social media for minors under the age of 16 were introduced in both the House and Senate, amid troubling new research suggesting a possible link between early immersion in social media and later suicide risk. 

Under Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley's bill, the Making Age-Verification Technology Uniform, Robust and Effective (MATURE) Act, those wishing to create a social media account would need to first submit their full legal name and age, verified by a government-issued ID.

Utah Republican Rep. Christ Stewart introduced similar legislation in the House. In an interview with the Deseret News, Stewart decried social media as "emotional heroin" responsible for a mental health crisis among U.S. youth.

Support for a bill by Rep. Chris Stewart banning youths under 16 from social media is gaining support amid troubling new research suggesting a possible link between early immersion in social media and later suicide risk. 

New research conducted by scientists from the University of Toronto and University of California-San Francisco found that greater screen time among children between the ages of 9 and 11 is strongly associated with a greater risk of committing suicide just two years later.

According to the paper, published in the journal Preventive Medicine, every extra hour per day a child spends online correlates with a 9% higher risk of engaging in suicidal behaviors within the next two years. This includes scrolling through social media, watching YouTube-like videos, playing video games, and video chatting.

"Screen usage could lead to social isolation, cyberbullying, and sleep disruption, which could worsen mental health," said one of the authors of the study, Dr. Jason Nagata, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California-San Francisco. "More time on screens often displaces time for in person socializing, physical activity, and sleep."

The World Health Organization says that children ages 6-17 should be limited to two hours or less per day of recreational screen time on weekdays. According to the CDC, however, 8-10 year-olds now spend an average of six hours per day glued to screens, while ages 11-14 spend an average of nine hours per day looking at screens. Most of this time is spent on social media platforms

"Social media has two characteristics that predispose people to experience stress: They are addictive by design, and they remove the user from the live company of other people," psychologist Noam Shpancer wrote recently in Psychology Today. "In this, social media are quite different from earlier forms of entertainment such as TV or movies, which were communal and non-addictive." 

Social media, moreover, exposes users to inordinate amounts of information, Shpancer noted. This barrage of information, he warned, "is not random." Social media platforms, he said, are only interested in the kind of information that will grab users' attention. In other words, the information tends to be extreme, either "negative (terror, crime, mayhem we fear)" or "positive (beautiful rich people and places we envy)" but rarely, if ever, healthy. 

Combining these extremes of information with the removal of actual human interaction from the equation results, he explained, in "heightened levels of stress ('this is too much to process'), anxiety ('the world is going to hell'), and envy ('I can never measure up')."

"A 2017 study of over half a million eighth through 12th graders found that the number exhibiting high levels of depressive symptoms increased by 33 percent between 2010 and 2015," wrote Caroline Miller at the Child Mind Institute website. "In the same period, the suicide rate for girls in that age group increased by 65 percent."

Smartphones were introduced in 2007, and by 2015, 92% of teens and young adults in the U.S. owned a smartphone. "The rise in depressive symptoms correlates with smartphone adoption during that period, even when matched year by year," wrote Miller, citing the study's lead author, San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge.

Depression increases the risk of engaging in suicidal behaviors. In the U.S., suicide is now the second leading cause of death among adolescents. 

TikTok may be among the worst social media offenders, the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) suggested in a December report titled "Deadly by Design: TikTok pushes harmful content promoting eating disorders and self-harm into young users' feeds."Calling the app "every parent's nightmare," the CCDH found that young people's feeds are constantly "bombarded with harmful, harrowing content that can have a significant cumulative impact on their understanding of the world around them, and their physical and mental health."

Earlier this month, the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a bill giving power to President Biden to ban TikTok. While the panel voted along party lines, Hawley sees shielding youth from the dangers of social media as a bipartisan issue.

"Decades from now, future generations will look back on social media in the 2010s and 2020s as we look back on the days of asbestos in buildings or lead in the water supply," Hawley wrote. "Danger was everywhere; leaders only needed to realize it."