For Gen Z, Social Media Reform Has Been a Lifetime in the Making

When crafting legislation to ensure online safety, it’s time we give Gen Z—the first truly digital generation—a seat at the table. 

. There’s been a a 17 percent increase in screen use among teens and tweens in the last two years. Gen Zers reported using social media for four or more hours a day—a rate almost double that of all U.S. adults. (Education Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

For members of Generation Z (Gen Z), the negative effects of social media have been a constant presence in our lives—intense social pressures, eating disorders, body image issues, bullying and attention deficits.

In recent months, concerns about social media have earned national attention. During his State of the Union address, President Biden received a standing ovation from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress when he urged the U.S. to “finally hold social media companies accountable for the experiment they are running on our children for profit.”

The U.S. surgeon general made news this year when he recommended that children under 13 should not use social media for fear of altered brain chemistry. Lawsuits have also been filed in SeattleCalifornia and soon in Utah with allegations against social media companies for creating a youth mental health crisis—one that has placed new burdens on states and their education systems. These lawsuits are in addition to over 1,200 lawsuits filed by families against these platforms. 

While these claims are just beginning to reach the courts and our elected leaders, members of Gen Z have lived these harms for years. Gen Z is the first truly digital generation. We know both the pleasures and the plights of social media. Without us making the case for much-needed reforms, our experience cannot be fully understood. It’s time for Gen Z to have a seat at the table and advocate for meaningful legislation that will ensure our safety online. 

Consider this: Congress hasn’t passed kids’ online safety legislation since 1996 when the internet was still young and only just beginning to transform the world as we know it. For members of Gen Z, that means we have literally been waiting a lifetime for change. 

As fears for children’s safety online continue to mount, educators and lawmakers have positioned themselves alongside a growing number of Gen Z leaders working to demand better practices from the platforms. I am one of those leaders. I seek to empower youth advocates to claim their seats at the table and use their voices to fight back. 
In 2020, I co-founded an organization and youth-led movement called LOG OFF, which seeks to elevate the experiences of Gen Z users of social media and promote policies that will make these powerful technologies safer and healthier for us. And earlier this month, I voiced my concerns before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Let’s be clear: social media isn’t all bad. Despite the addictive nature of these platforms, social media has the ability to connect, mobilize and inform millions of people. It can elevate underreported stories, bring together marginalized communities. And it can be used to hold leaders accountable. Social media has the potential to play a positive role in our society. This can only be achieved if platforms are cured of their toxicity.

Despite what the platforms say, social media isn’t actually designed to foster meaningful relationships or distribute reliable information. It’s designed to hook you, to bring you back for more. In a time when childhood has turned digital, addictive relationships with social media have become dangerously common.

For members of Gen Z, social media is our main tool for existence. It is common that social media and its users have a codependent relationship; the platforms vie for the user’s attention, and the users rely on the platforms to fill their needs. Kids and teens are being sucked into a vortex of likes, comments and shares. Suddenly, our self-worth is quantified and we become addicted to the gratification. Now, without these platforms, many of us can feel socially disconnected from our peers.

Studies show that the continual overuse of social media—especially among young people—has led to an increase in mental health issues and can alter their fundamental brain chemistry. This is part of the charge being levied in lawsuits across the country. 

Rather than banning these platforms, we must push for a platform renovation with regulation that promotes youth well-being.

On the state level, we have seen that change is possible. In 2022, California’s Age-Appropriate Design Code was passed unanimously into law—a groundbreaking bill that requires online platforms to proactively consider how their product design impacts the privacy and safety of children and teens in the state.

But we can’t stop here. It’s critical that we set new standards to protect youth on social media, require more transparency when it comes to the algorithms these tech companies are developing and protect the data and privacy of young people from being monetized by these platforms that have placed profit above safety. 

For better or for worse, social media is here to stay. At least 75 percent of teens in the U.S. have at least one active social media profile. And as new apps continue to burst onto the scene and children become digitally literate at earlier ages, this percentage will continue to rise. It’s essential that we work together with policymakers to enact real change and detoxify social media. This is our moment.

For lawmakers to understand the nuances of social media and find avenues for change, they need Gen Z’s voices at the table. Congress hasn’t passed meaningful legislation regarding kids’ safety online since before I was born. The time is now for Gen Z to lead the conversation. 

Up next:

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Emma Lembke is the founder of LOG OFF Movement, co-chair of the 'Design It For Us' Coalition, and a member of Issue One’s Council for Responsible Social Media.