For a few hours on October 4, the developed world experienced a temporary increase in emotional health and psychological peace. The reason? Facebook crashed. A major error in the social networking company’s servers plunged its app, as well as Instagram, into the digital abyss. Despite some tantalizing predictions of impending doom for the unpopular corporation, Facebook fixed the issue, and everything went back to normal.
This is good news for Mark Zuckerberg, but bad news for millions of his youngest customers. For teenage girls especially, the “normal” of maximal social media intake comes at enormous personal cost. Observers of Gen Z teens and young adults have known for a while that social media correlates strongly with negative social and psychological effects, but a Wall Street Journal investigation last month reinforced this point. According to corporate documents obtained by the Journal, Facebook’s leadership has been aware for some time that its key user demographic—young females—reports significant mental health consequences from heavy use of Instagram.
Many of the worst side effects of Instagram are body image issues, which seems a painfully obvious danger given the exhibitionist logic of the app. It’s impossible to imagine anyone before the mid-2000s thinking that positive social good could result from a website on which young girls are encouraged to post photographs of themselves that will compete for “Likes” and compliments (tellingly, this “hot or not” premise was crucial to Facebook’s beginnings in Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm). The triumph of Instagram in an allegedly feminist age is a remarkable testament to the liturgical power of internet technology in society.
Instagram is not the only offender. Facebook’s cynical maneuvering between media organization and personal network has produced a poisoned information well. Twitter’s algorithm is finely tuned to match users with the content that will provoke the most furious outrage (because negative emotion is more addictive, and thus more profitable), while TikTok is rapidly becoming a vehicle for exposing children to pornography and drug content. The pace at which new research exposes the moral rot in Silicon Valley’s premier products is overwhelming. But it’s one thing to be convinced of a problem; it’s another entirely to know what to do.
Some kind of regulation of the social internet feels inevitable. In the most recent issue of The New Atlantis, technology critic Nicholas Carr makes a compelling case that corporations like Twitter and Facebook can and should be regulated as public “broadcasters,” subject to similar rules and oversight as radio. Likewise, Ross Douthat recently suggested treating social media apps as “adult entertainment,” with age gates and other means to restrict usage to adults. The least promising legislative response is, sadly, the most likely: laws that only target issues of “fairness” and “censorship,” but leave the broader epistemological structure of social media intact.
There is a better option. Regulation is a good idea, but the wisest, most plausible, and also most effective option is not law, but stigma. Society needs to stigmatize not just Facebook and Instagram, but the social internet itself.
This would not destroy or even necessarily limit the Web. Rather, it would recalibrate cultural assumptions to better accord with reality. Instead of thinking of the Web as primarily an intellectual space—a neutral repository of valuable information—educators and parents would recognize that the Web is fundamentally hostile to robust habits of thought. Instead of “digital literacy,” technology education would focus on digital discernment. Students’ limitless use of the Web would be seen less like an essential skill and more like a precarious lifestyle choice, similar to limitless hours in front of the TV. Most important, a social stigma around the internet would create rhetorical and practical barriers between minors and smartphones: disclaimers from phone carriers (think a Surgeon General’s warning, but for apps); information campaigns targeting parents with data on teen mental health and smartphone use; and, as Douthat suggested, age-based restrictions, backed up by measures such as credit card requirements or carrier account holder authorizations.
If creating such a cultural stigma sounds impossible, it’s only because the positive good of maximal Web access has been assumed for so long. As television grew and its content diversified, American elites instituted regulations that, while often pushed, still enjoy broad support from the public. Nobody believes that HBO’s late-night programming should be shown on PBS at 10 a.m., and even in our vulgar public square, there remain some lines that major networks don’t cross. Restrictions on behaviors we nonetheless allow are not groundbreaking: alcohol, cigarettes, voting, and many other activities are reserved for people of mature ages, and law and custom both enforce this. Technological innovation has made the internet both ambient and granular: everything, all of the time, formatted to fit in the privacy of your pocket. Such an immersive, formative medium demands renewed social mores.
The power of stigma is in its organic nature. As families brave mockery for making countercultural choices about smartphones and social media, the wisdom of restraint will manifest in healthier, more present kids and adults. Many will have to be brought along slowly, helped by persuasive books such as The Tech-Wise Family, The Shallows, and 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You. An effective and redemptive social stigma does not need to wait on consensus from a dysfunctional ruling class. As Roger Scruton observed, “Stigma is not an act of aggression but a sign that we care about our neighbors' lives and actions. It expresses the consciousness of other people, the desire for their good opinion, and the impetus to uphold the social norms that make judgment possible.”
Samuel D. James serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books and publishes a regular newsletter called Insights.
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