Social networks are like alcohol: should they be banned for people under 16?

Social networks affect the health and behavior of adolescents in a way comparable to alcohol. Yet, these digital tools are not prohibited for minors. Voices are being raised for this to change. Explanations.

From the United States to Europe, these are two forums that have sounded the alarm on an essential and worrying social fact that has been ignored by political leaders: the harmful effects of social networks on children and adolescents. On September 17, 2021, the American specialist in technology and media, Derek Thompson, published an article in The Atlantic entitled: “Social networks are the alcohol of attention.” That is one of the reasons why it’s harder for modern students to focus and they prefer to buy term papers online. This way, it is easier for students to be successful without extra effort.

Following Derek Thomson, the French philosopher and essayist Gaspard Koenig wrote a column with an unequivocal title in Les Echos: “Let’s ban social networks for teenagers.”  In both articles, the authors shed a harsh light on a problem that parents of children or teenagers often do not dare to address, and that can be summed up in one sentence: the addiction to social networks of their offspring. A problem that has gone from being an individual, a family problem, to a social phenomenon.

Hashtag #Anti2010

Gaspard Koenig begins his column as follows: “My daughter, born in 2010, is entering the sixth grade. In the last few days, I have received a whole series of alerts warning me about the “cyber harassment” of which the “2010 generation” was a victim. This case of harassment against students entering the sixth grade via the social network TikTok in particular – very popular with young people – has reached the Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer. He reacted by declaring “completely stupid” this digital vendetta and proposed in response … hashtags #bienvenue2010. These welcome hashtags are supposed to “counter” the #anti2010, #anti2010nul, #anti2010cancers, or #brigadeanti2010, which have been pouring out on the platforms since the beginning of the school year, with, for example, calls to “display the ugliest outfits of 2010”. It is not certain that the minister’s hashtag will change anything in this massive digital harassment. In the end, the TikTok platform banned the famous #anti2010 hashtag, which was quickly bypassed with other keywords.

“Holding a book in your hand for an hour, without a like or a retweet, has become a physiological impossibility for some [of my students].” – Gaspard Koenig, philosopher, and essayist.

However, as the philosopher points out in his column, online harassment is a symptom – and a very concerning symptom – of a larger phenomenon: “I see the perverse effect of social network addiction when I teach “digital natives” students (young people born in the Internet age; ed. note), who are increasingly lacking in a basic faculty of concentration (…) These observations lead to the conclusion that alcohol is involved.

Social networks: an “alcohol” of attention

The consequences of the almost permanent use of social networks for young people are new pathologies that worry professionals. At the center of the problem of this connection, there is human attention, more and more solicited by these digital tools.

Like alcohol, social networks seem to offer a heady cocktail of dopamine, disorientation, and, for some, addiction. Call it “attention drinking.” -Derek Thompson, technology and media journalist.

Derek Thompson says no different in his article when he begins to define the social network Instagram: “Here’s a fun product [Instagram] that millions of people seem to love; it’s unhealthy in large doses; it makes a significant minority feel more anxious, more depressed, and worse about their bodies; and it’s difficult for many people to use in moderation.”

The specialist and his essay help to highlight the parallel between social networks and alcohol: “What does this Instagram description look like? To me, it sounds like alcohol: a social lubricant that can be delicious but also depressing, a popular experiment that mixes short-term euphoria and long-term regret, a product that leads to painful and even addictive behavior in a significant minority. Like alcohol, social networking seems to offer a heady cocktail of dopamine, disorientation, and, for some, addiction. Call it “attention alcohol.”

Urgent measures to be taken?

Philosopher Gaspard Koenig makes a similar analysis of the problem: “The best neuroscientists, hired at great expense by the platforms, are working to titillate the reward circuits of our brains. We need to treat social networks for what they are: a free drug distributed right out of school.” There is indeed evidence that these applications are designed and constantly improved by the companies that develop them to capture the attention of users in order to make them stay online as much as possible. The brains of the youngest are the easiest to reach by these techniques – due to their immaturity – and it results in an addiction much easier to obtain and important in these audiences :

The analogy between social networks and alcohol is not a simple figure of speech. The behaviors of teenagers are similar in alcoholic intoxication as in “intoxication created by digital platforms”: disinhibition, gratuitous aggression, insults, ease to depression, feelings of social cohesion or conversely of isolation, euphoria, degraded or overestimated self-image…

“Sixteen years old is the age when you can enter a bar alone. It would be logical to make it also the legal threshold to enter the great tripot of disinformation. “- Gaspard Koenig.

Gaspard Koenig believes that social networks – in addition to generating very adverse psycho-social effects – expose young people to misinformation that society has a duty to protect them from: “We do prohibit the sale of alcohol to minors (…) It’s time for the legislator to put social networks in the same category. Sixteen years is the age when one can enter alone in a bar. It would make sense to make it the legal threshold for entering the great tripot of disinformation as well.” 

Protect, educate, emancipate

When the fight against false information, against school failure, drugs, discrimination, harassment, exposure to pornography, it would seem logical and urgent to debate the prohibition of social networks – this alcohol of attention – for those under 16 years. This is what Derek Thomson and Gaspard Koenig are asking for.

“We should learn from alcohol, which is studied, labeled, taxed, and restricted. Similar restrictions would discourage social media abuse among teens.” – Derek Thompson, technology and media journalist

The philosopher justifies this necessity: “As much as the State must let the adult citizens live their life, it has all its role to play to emancipate socially and intellectually the minors, including by the constraint. That’s why, as someone who doesn’t like bans, I have no hesitation in advocating the closure of social networks to those under 16.”

In his column, Derek Thomson, while not arguing for a pure ban on under-16s, brings up solutions, provided that social networks are considered in the same way as alcohol: “We should learn from alcohol, which is studied, labeled, taxed and restricted. Similar restrictions would discourage social media abuse among teens. We must continue to study exactly how and for whom these applications are psychologically ruinous and respond directly to the consensus reached by this research. Governments should urge or require companies to create more in-app tools to discourage overuse.”

In the face of the “attention economy” created by large platforms, few can resist. The states are at the forefront. What if the adult population – parents – are the only ones able to act? It may be the case. But as usual, with glaring social inequalities, as Koenig reminds us: a report of the High Council of Public Health published last year showed that “the higher the level of study of the child’s representative, the lower the time spent in front of a screen.”  Conversely, the more the social environment is disadvantaged, the more the child or teenager is exposed to the alcohol of attention that is social networks.

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