Social Media

Don't Co-Parent With Congress

Instead of lobbying for age verification and youth social media bans, parents can simply restrict their kids' smartphone use.


Joanna Andreasson/DALL-E4

I'm always puzzled when I hear other parents say they're worried about the effects social media might be having on their children. My confusion only grows when I see that the federal government is considering a ban on kids using social media. Are teens acquiring their own mobile devices and paying the bills? Doubtful. It seems someone gave them tacit permission to be on those platforms and the tools to do so. Yet many parents feel like they have no options other than to surrender to their kids' desires or hate tweet their congressman to get the government to do something about TikTok.

I'm the parent of a teenage daughter who does not have any social media accounts. She has lived her life unplugged.

I remember very clearly when I decided to institute this policy, when she was about 4 years old. We were sitting together in the waiting room of the pediatrician's office, and as usual, I was on my phone sending emails. She wanted to play with my device, and I declined by saying, "When you've learned to be comfortable alone with your thoughts, you can play with my phone."

At age 10, we added a landline phone for the house and bought a laptop for her schoolwork. Strangely, landline phones are making a comeback with Gen Z thanks to the same 2000s nostalgia keeping the Scream movie franchise alive. Younger generations are even beginning to self-regulate their screen time by switching to "dumb phones" and old-school flip phones.

But when my daughter turned 13 this year, we took the next step and equipped her with a smartphone, more for our convenience than hers. She learned what I told her when she was 4, which was to be comfortable without distraction. Devices are the modern-day pacifier, handed to kids as young as 2 if they're squawking at the Olive Garden—but unlike pacifiers, kids aren't meant to outgrow them.

Parents today are scared of what they're seeing kids encounter online. Pornography seems ubiquitous, algorithms game users' attention spans, and content recommendation features offer plenty of inappropriate content.

My wife and I share those fears. Millennials got to experience the last days of the Wild West online, and while certain elements of it were fun, there is so much we would not wish for our child to experience the way we did.

The good news for parents in 2024 is that there are market solutions to this.

After modest research, our family purchased the Bark phone for our teen. Bark is one of many cellular devices with parental controls and permissions built into the operating system. Kids who have Bark get to enjoy the social boost of having what looks like any other Android or iPhone, but all app downloads can be set to require parental approval. There are also adjustable monitoring features powered by AI to flag content and conversations that parents might want to know about.

Bark has numerous competitors, including Gabb phones, Troomi, and Pinwheel. Consumers have a remarkable number of options that contradict the notion that parents are powerless or lack tools to guide their children online and thus require some government help.

It's important to clarify that getting a modified phone for our child was not convenient compared to simply adding a standard iPhone to our cellular plan. While the Bark phone is very affordable, the learning curve is annoying. The content monitoring can also be a little aggressive for our taste.

As I'm writing this, I've just received a text notification that my kid is listening to a song on Spotify with sexual content: the Millennial anthem "Mr. Brightside" by The Killers. Great song. Something something jealousy, touching of chests, and taking off dresses. For now, these sorts of warnings are mildly entertaining—especially the daily notifications of "Weapons," "Violence," and "Alcohol Content" coming from streams of the Hamilton soundtrack. But if Spotify is recommending Cardi B's "WAP" to our daughter before we've talked about sex, we'd like to know that, and now we can.

Parents and consumers have real choices available to them on the market, and they are not all the same. Bark phones, for example, can have almost every moderating feature turned off when the time comes, while Troomi and Pinwheel phones make their device guardrails permanent.

Don't despair. There are alternatives out there that are better than co-parenting with Congress.

An AI-generated illustration that creatively represents the concept of the article titled 'Don't Co-parent With Congress'. | Joanna Andreasson/DALL-E4
(Joanna Andreasson/DALL-E4)
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