The Internet can be a risky place. There are endless feeds filled with posts that contain graphic sexual and violent content, glamorize eating disorders, encourage self-harm or promote discriminatory and offensive diatribes. People often share too much personal information with a too-public audience that includes cyberbullies and strangers with ill intent. And they also risk losing time: by spending hours online, they might miss out on experiences and growth opportunities that can be found elsewhere. These problems are particularly acute for children and teenagers, and new laws that attempt to protect youth from the Internet’s negative effects have their own serious downsides. Scientific American spoke with experts about the best evidence-backed ways to actually keep kids safe online.
Young people spend a huge chunk of their lives on the Internet. For most teens in the U.S., the bulk of their waking hours play out in front of network-connected screens, according to surveys from the nonprofit organization Common Sense and from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Kids younger than age 13 aren’t that far behind; they spend upward of five hours online daily.
Though the exact impacts of online activity aren’t yet well understood, it’s clear that what happens on the Internet does matter for young people’s well-being. “I don’t know that we can say ‘cause and effect’ at this point,” says Mary Alvord, a practicing psychologist who specializes in treating children and adolescents and is an adjunct associate professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine. “But we can make correlational statements,” she adds, noting that excessive time spent on social media has been associated with poor mental health among kids and teens.
Both the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Psychological Association issued health advisories earlier this year about potential harms of online social media to youth. Each advisory is clear: online activity carries benefits and risks, and more work is needed to understand and mitigate the downsides.
In recent months lawmakers have introduced and enacted policies ostensibly aimed at doing just that. Multiple states have imposed age restrictions for certain types of online content. At the national level, the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) has advanced out of a Senate committee and awaits consideration on the legislative floor. But experts are divided on whether age-restriction efforts and sweeping policies such as KOSA are set to help young people or harm them.
Proponents of KOSA, including the American Psychological Association, say that the legislation could be a positive first step toward holding tech companies accountable for their impact. Conversely, critics such as the American Civil Liberties Union fear that some of its provisions will reduce online freedoms, restrict access to information and penalize vulnerable populations such as LGBTQ+ youth by leaving the moderation and definition of harmful content up to state officials, who may have their own political agendas. Earlier this month one co-sponsor of the bill, Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, implied that in her state, KOSA would be used to block minors from accessing information about transgender issues.
But these controversial policies aren’t the only way to promote online safety. Other legislative actions that are less focused on censorship, along with clear content guidelines and better social media design, could help. Plus, digital safety researchers and psychologists agree that getting families, schools and young people themselves involved would make a big difference in keeping kids safe.
Digital privacy legislation is one alternate policy path that might shift the online landscape for the better. “If people’s data is treated with respect in ways that are transparent and accountable, actually, it turns out a whole set of safety risks get mitigated,” says social psychologist Sonia Livingstone, who researches children and online media at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
A comprehensive data privacy bill could require social media companies to disclose when user data are being collected and sold—and to obtain consent first. This would help users make better choices for themselves, Livingstone says. Limiting the data that tech platforms amass and profit from could also help block the proliferation of algorithms that emphasize increasingly extreme content in order to hold social media users’ attention. Additionally, privacy legislation could ideally enable users to request the removal of content or data they no longer want online—potentially protecting kids (and everyone else) from their own short-term choices, Alvord says.
Beyond privacy, national guidelines for social media sites could help. Livingstone and Alvord suggest that a content rating system like those used for movies, TV shows and video games might help young people avoid inappropriate content—and allow families to set firmer boundaries. Design features that let users block others and limit the audience for specific posts allow kids and teens to take the reins of their own safety—which is critical, says Pamela Wisniewski, a Vanderbilt University computer scientist, who studies human-computer interaction and adolescent online safety.
Parental controls can be appropriate for younger kids, but teens need the chance to exercise autonomy online, Wisniewski says. Such freedom lets them engage in some of the Internet’s positive aspects: civic engagement opportunities, community and educational resources, identity exploration and connections beyond one’s own social bubble. To ensure these benefits are accessible to all, youth should be directly involved formulating regulations and safety strategies, Wisniewski adds. As part of her research, she holds workshops with teens to involve them in co-designing online safety interventions. Though this program, called Teenovate, is in the early stages, some ideas have already emerged from it. Among them: social platforms could provide “nudges” that would ask users to think twice before sharing personal data and prompt would-be bad actors to reconsider personal requests or bullying behavior.
Education is another important way to reach young people. They may be digital natives, but there’s a lot for them to learn about engaging with the Internet safely. “You ask young people what they would like to learn about in school; they would love better digital literacy,” Livingstone says. “They’d love to be taught about data ecology. They’d love to understand how algorithms work.” And existing coursework should adapt to include discussions of online issues, Wisniewski adds. For instance, sex education classes could add modules about dealing with sexual solicitation online or learning safer ways to “sext.” Studies suggest that sexting, or sharing intimate information via digital devices, is practiced by 25 percent to 35 percent of teenagers.
Engaging with the ways youth use the Internet instead of dismissing them is key to improving young people’s experience—at their schools, in their families and under policies that affect them. Kids and teens are often better versed in the latest apps and platforms than their parents are. This dynamic can breed misunderstanding and judgment, and it can make open conversations about online struggles difficult, says psychologist Mitch Prinstein, who studies technology and adolescent development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We’ve inadvertently communicated to our kids that we don’t understand or care and [that] we’re not going to be empathic or interested in talking about their online experiences,” Prinstein explains. “What we should be doing is just the opposite: saying, ‘This seems really important, and you’re spending a lot of time on it.’”
From that place of openness and curiosity, caregivers are much better positioned to help kids and teens develop resilience and healthier online habits. The online world “isn’t good or bad,” Alvord says. “It’s what we make of it, how we use it, how much we use it.” Accepting that “it’s here to stay,” she says, is the first step toward finding real and meaningful safety solutions.