Chairman's Desk

Government bans on social media will only make them more desirable

Will Rogers has an old joke about Prohibition: “Why don’t they pass a Constitutional Amendment prohibiting anybody from learning anything? If it works as good as Prohibition did, in five years we will have the smartest people on earth.”

This joke is still funny — more than 90 years later — because it hits at what is essentially a universal truth: people do what authority forbids. And they do it, in many cases, precisely because it is forbidden.

Treatise on human nature aside, the bottom line is that not only has prohibition always been a fool’s errand, it always will be. Scripture underlines it — see the original sinners sporting nothing but fig leaves. History proves it — see the utter failure that was the Eighteenth Amendment.

And yet, calls for precisely this are forcefully growing on a new front: social media.

Last month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis banned under-14s from these platforms, while the U.K. has targeted cellphones in classrooms. Closer to home, alongside the ever-raging debate about the Online Harms Act, a TikTok ban seems likelier after the U.S.‘s proposed ban.

This is no casual or ill-intentioned crusade. The motives behind these efforts are clear. And while there are disagreements on the margins, experts uniformly agree that social media is contributing to a mental crisis amongst our youth.

Now, Canadian parents hardly need studies or surveys to evidence the dangers of social media. We can see the facts up close. Everyday. Both in our homes and in our schools. Teenagers captured by exploitative algorithms designed to distract.

Young girls, in particular, are struggling with increased rates of depression and anxiety. And the starkest reality of all: the increased rate of suicide among youth, a grim testament to the despair fostered by social media’s relentless demands and the impossible standards it perpetuates.

Unfortunately, the greater the stakes, the greater the prospect for nonsense. And the highest form, in this case, is the pipe dream that we can simply put the genie back in the bottle and successfully ban social media outright.

While the reasons we can’t are the same that have always applied historically, in this individual case, we must confront pressing new realities. Foremost, is admitting technology will always advance faster than the capacity of legislators in two fundamental respects.

First, their ability to understand it. Just watch the desperate attempts of U.S. senators to grapple with new technologies in recent congressional hearings. If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.

Second, in their ability to craft legislation that can effectively police it. As multiple failed bills, both here and in the U.S., testify.

But we don’t need anything more than plain common sense to tell us that a blanket ban on social media for children is bound to fail. Any parent will confirm: this new generation is uniquely technically literate and will surely effortlessly outmanoeuvre the most well-intentioned but toothless government restrictions with a few clicks.

This article first appeared in Toronto Star on April 7, 2024.

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