December 15, 2023 - 6:00pm

It’s been a big year for banning things. Over the last 12 months Rishi Sunak has banned laughing gas, disposable vapes, American Bully XLs, cigarettes (from 2030), single-use cutlery, and is now looking at potentially banning social media for under-16s. A consultation is being launched in the new year, with an outright ban one of the options under consideration, alongside greater parental controls and strengthening research on the risks children are exposed to. The announcement has come just days after Meta confirmed that all Facebook and Messenger messages will be automatically encrypted, thereby making it harder to detect child sex abuse and exploitation.

The reactions to the possibility of a ban tend to fall into three categories. The first are those that propose greater education: the “this should be taught in school instead” contingent. For example, Gary Neville tweeted that we should have a “curriculum that is best in class in social media” and teaches kids to use it “safely and properly”. The reality is that this is already taught, and any further changes to the curriculum would mean something else would need to be sacrificed (and this would of course require more teachers, who are in dangerously short supply).

The second category is the “Blame Big Tech” brigade. Dame Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner for England, has said that children should not be “punished” and that companies must “step up” and implement age limits. I’m not sure that I agree it’s a punishment — the few children I teach who don’t have smartphones often say that it is liberating if anything — and social media companies have shown no desire to practise what they preach so far. You technically need to be 13 to use TikTok, Instagram or Snapchat, and yet the majority of eight to 11 year olds have their profile on at least one social network, as do a third of five-to-seven-year-olds.

This leads onto the final category: the “Parent Power” collective. Plenty of people believe that parents should have greater control over their children’s social media use, and look to other countries as examples of possible alternatives: for example, in France, new laws now require children aged 15 and under to obtain parental consent before opening a social media account, whereas in Utah parents now legally have full access to their children’s accounts and there is a social media curfew for minors.

I would suggest there should be a fourth alternative: attack the algorithm. So many of the problems social media causes for young people — the addictiveness, the exposure to dangerous content, the negative impacts on self-esteem and body image — stem from recommended content and personalised algorithms that feed children and teenagers things they did not search for. The EU is already making headway with this; for example, their new Digital Services Act means that TikTok users aged between 13 and 17 will not be shown personalised content or adverts based on their online activities, and videos will be displayed chronologically rather than ordered by the algorithm.

Rather than an outright ban, which is probably fundamentally unworkable, social media companies could offer different versions of their apps to children and teenagers, much like how YouTube has launched YouTube Kids.

Unfortunately, the government has so far proven it is too slow and ponderous to seriously tackle ever-changing tech issues. The Online Safety Act has taken seven years, and has been watered down so many times that there are very few people happy with it. It remains to be seen whether this new consultation will be any different, but we need to consider more subtle suggestions as well as drastic overhauls.


Kristina Murkett is a freelance writer and English teacher.

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