AUSTIN — At the start of a new school week, middle school teacher Chris Leal likes to check in with his students and how their weekends went.
Leal noticed a trend in the responses of his students at Henry W. Longfellow Career Exploration Academy in Dallas.
Students’ weekends were spent on TikTok, Instagram or other social media, accruing as much as 12 hours of screen time. Their reliance on smartphones and social media apps gives him concern.
While the school doesn’t allow students to look at their phones during class, Leal said he can see they are “just itching” to get back to their devices by the time the bell rings.
“It’s a lot, but that is exactly what these products are designed to do,” Leal said.
Last week, the Texas House approved HB 18, a bill that requires digital service providers such as social media platforms to gain parental consent in order to enter an agreement with a minor to create a social media account.
“We’re going to equip our parents to better protect our kids,” the bill’s author, Rep. Shelby Slawson, said during the House debate.
The proposal would allow the minor’s parent or guardian to provide consent though a toll-free telephone number or video conference or responding to an email. Collecting government-issued identification could be done to verify the parent or guardian’s identity. Digital service providers then would be required to delete such information after confirming the identity.
It’s among a handful of bills this session that target the use of social media and its impact on children’s mental health.
Slawson, R-Stephenville, has said the bill aims to mitigate a minor’s exposure to bullying, harassment or advertisements for products unlawful to a minor such as alcohol, gambling, tobacco and pornography.
Before obtaining consent, Slawson’s bill would require digital service providers to give parents or guardians the ability to permanently enable the highest privacy settings offered by the provider. Providers that use algorithms to automate the suggestion, promotion or ranking of information must disclose how they are being used to the minor’s account.
Another bill would prohibit most teenagers from using social media platforms altogether.
Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, proposed requiring social media platforms to verify that a user is at least 18 years old. That would mean providing a copy of a driver’s license and a photo to verify the identity of the account holder.
Legislators are following a nationwide trend of trying to limit youth’s activity on social media.
In February, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley introduced a bill called the Making Age-Verification Technology Uniform, Robust, and Effective Act. The MATURE Act would prohibit children younger than 16 from using social media platforms.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed two laws on March 23 that prohibits minors under 18 from using social media between the hours of 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. and requires all social media users to verify their age.
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‘Constantly with you’
Social media can be a lifeline for young people to connect with their peers outside of school or for those who live far away from each other, said Ottis Goodwin, the director of family and community resources at Fort Worth ISD.
However, he and others “are seeing an increase of cyberbullying and parents are struggling to get a handle on it,” Goodwin said. He added, “Now with social media, it’s constantly with you.”
Educators regularly say that social media is driving anxiety and depression among students, Goodwin said. Nearly 34% of FWISD students reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks, according to a 2019 Youth Risk Behavior report.
When a child mentions or a teacher notices signs of depression or anxiety, school officials assess the situation and provide parents with information on how to seek help, such as referring them to local hospitals or family resource centers, said Cynthia Bethany, the district’s director of prevention and crisis response.
In 2020, Texas had 500,000 kids diagnosed with anxiety or depression— a 23% increase from four years prior, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2022 Kids Count Data Book, which reports on state trends related to children’s well-being.
Texas ranks 41st in the nation for a high prevalence of mental illness among youth, according to Mental Health America’s 2022 state rankings. The ranking reflects that children in the state have low access to mental health care. Meanwhile, the state is also experiencing a shortage of mental health professionals in 248 counties, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
In 2021, about 42% of high school students nationwide reported feelings of sadness or hopelessness every day for at least two weeks in a row — an indication of an experience of a possible depressive episode, according to a recent youth risk behavior survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hispanic and multiracial students were more likely to experience repeated feelings of sadness or hopelessness, according to the CDC’s survey. In 2021, Black students were more likely to attempt suicide compared to white, Hispanic and Asian students, according to the survey.
Helping or hurting?
Technology and social media can be put to good use in school, said Jamie Freeny, director of the Center for School Behavioral Health at Mental Health America of Greater Houston.
“You have access to tutoring. You have access to people that are posting videos. It might be shortcuts, how to figure out this math problem or how to do the science,” Freeny said. “Then it’s not necessarily that the content is bad.”
Parents can help their children navigate the social media realm by meeting kids on the platform and sharing content that the parents approve of, Freeny said.
For example, Freeny said that she directs her goddaughter, who is training to become a dancer, to reputable social media accounts belonging to the New York City Ballet or the Houston Ballet. By doing so, Freeny said she was teaching her goddaughter how to find social media accounts related to her interests and how to spot accounts that may be harmful.
“I’m sending her somebody that I endorse with the hopes that exposure to something positive then will help her develop red flags about something that is not positive,” Freeny said.
Alongside harmful content such as misinformation, violence or recruitment, Freeny said the frequency or amount of exposure to social media that a child experiences can impact their mental health.
In 2021, 16% of high school students reported being electronically bullied through texting and social media apps. Seven in 10 Black teens and 62% of Hispanic teens reported that online bullying and harassment is a problem, according to Pew Research Center.
Still, studies have also shown that social media plays a role in helping teens make new friends and connect with them.
Nearly two-thirds of teens share their social media username with a brand new friend to stay in touch, according to Pew Research Center.
Antigone Davis, vice president of Meta and global head of safety testified against HB 18 during a March committee hearing. Davis said that Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, prohibits content that promotes suidice, self-harm and eating disorders.
“We use A.I. to find 98.6% of that content before it’s reported to us,” she said.
Several existing rules that Meta follows already protect minors online, Davis added.
“We’ve built over 30 tools to help young people remain safe and have positive experiences on our platforms,” Davis said.
Instagram, for example, defaults those under 16 years old into private accounts, which means that users must be approved by request to follow the minor and view their posts. The platform provides parental controls that allow guardians to supervise the teen’s account, set time limits or scheduled breaks on the app.
Meanwhile, Leal said he tries to walk the line between meeting his students where they’re at and keeping them focused and engaged in his class lessons.
Sometimes those weekends spent on social media and technology extend students’ learning beyond the classroom. They come back to school with educational videos or posts related to the course materials, he noted.
Leal hopes to see legislation pass that helps students with their mental health along with navigating healthy ways to connect with their peers online through platforms such as Instagram, YouTube and TikTok.
“There are ways that you can address this issue better without trying to cut off this whole generation that has grown up on these platforms,” Leal said.
Reporting Texas, an undergraduate journalism class at The University of Texas at Austin, pairs students with Texas newsrooms to cover the state’s 88th legislative session.