The internet can be a cruel space. This is perhaps why the Karnataka High Court recently suggested that it might be in the nation’s best interest to restrict children’s access to social media platforms, setting a threshold age of either 18 or 21 years for using these sites. Similar restrictions are either being contemplated or are in place in several countries, including the United States of America, the United Kingdom and China. The primary problem with such a regulation, as the US legislature once pointed out, is that it violates a child’s right to free speech and leads to privacy-invasive age verification for all users, including minors. The sensitive personal details required for such a verification may not be safe in the hands of social media companies whose business model is based on trading in data. Ethical questions aside, there is also the very real problem of enforcing such a ban. Banning social media will make it further enticing, breeding clandestine ways of accessing the forbidden fruit. Children might thus be pushed towards the dark web, which is not only impossible to regulate but is also a far more dangerous place than social media. Moreover, such a ban might be futile as many children in India use their parents’ devices to access the latter’s social media accounts — 55% of urban parents admitted to this in one survey. There is also a case to be made for the hazards of sudden exposure to social media at the age of 18 or 21. After all, adults unaware of the pitfalls of social media using it for the first time are at risk too — a study in the US showed that luddites are more likely to be manipulated by fake news on social media.
However, there can be no doubting the fact that social media can imperil children’s safety. Since bans are not feasible and prohibitive or restrictive interventions by the State or the family — the confiscation of phones, for instance — will not work given the utility of gadgets in modern education, children must be made aware of the lurking dangers. Making lessons on the safe usage of social media a part of the curriculum can equip children to better navigate these sites. In-app statutory warnings and enforced screen-breaks programmed into social media apps might be beneficial for both children and adults addicted to social media. A crackdown will not keep children off social media but knowledge about its perils might keep them safe.