Politicians Stoke Fear When It Comes to Social Media (and Do They Really Care About Child Safety?)

Travis Burchart
13 min readMar 2, 2024

Everyone knows someone whose child has been hurt by social media.[1] I’ve heard too many stories to count. — Paul Renner, Republican, speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.

I don’t … I don’t know a single child who’s been hurt by social media. That doesn’t mean social media is harmless; there are issues to address. But Paul Renner — who I’ve never met — doesn’t speak for me; he doesn’t know “everyone” even if he says he does.[2]

If he knew me, he’d know that I work around college students, that my wife is a grade school teacher, that I have two children, one sixteen and one twenty. For the past decade, I’ve been surrounded by young people — children and adolescents — and I’ve never seen anyone hurt by social media. It definitely happens, but it doesn’t happen with the universality implied by Paul Renner.

In fact, I’ve seen the opposite. I work at a growing Christian college, and I see young people using social media for positive change, to build people up, to advocate for themselves. More importantly, I’ve seen young people — on five different occasions — express suicidal urges on social media, and in each instance, a community has reached out and lovingly urged them to seek help.

Playing Loose with the Numbers

Young girls are especially vulnerable, and as social media has taken off, their well-being has plummeted. We live in a time when 57% of high-school girls report persistent hopelessness or loneliness and 41% report monthly mental-health challenges. — Paul Renner

Paul Renner neglects to cite where this data comes from. The only link he provides is to a Fox News article titled “Teen girls spend more time on ‘sensitive’ social media content that can harm mental health, report says”. The data, as far as I can tell, comes (in part) from the CDC, which reported that:

nearly 3 in 5 (57%) U.S. teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless [emphasis added] in 2021 — double that of boys and the highest level reported over the past decade.

So Paul Renner (without proper attribution) seems to be citing the CDC. However, he leaves out that the CDC says absolutely nothing about social media. Instead, the CDC points a finger — not at social media — but at the American school system:

“Young people are experiencing a level of distress that calls on us to act with urgency and compassion,” said CDC Division of Adolescent and School Health Director Kathleen Ethier, Ph.D. “With the right programs and services in place, schools have the unique ability to help our youth flourish.”

School-based activities can make a profound difference in the lives of teens with a relatively small infusion of support to schools. More than 95% of U.S. youth spend much of their daily lives in school. While their primary goal is academic learning, schools can take evidence-based steps to foster the knowledge, skills and support needed to help prevent and reduce the negative impact of violence and other trauma and improve mental health.

First, let’s assume Paul Renner’s citation — “57% of high-school girls report persistent hopelessness or loneliness” — can be linked to social media (the CDC’s recommendation notwithstanding). Assuming this to be so, the data raises several questions:

· Are 43% of high-school girls “optimistic and sociable” in our social media world? If so, what are they doing differently?

· From 2011 to 2021, girls who persistently felt sad and hopeless increased from 36% to 57%. How much of this increase can be attributed directly to social media? What other factors (if any) are to blame?

· What did our legislators do in 2011 to help the 36% who felt sad and hopeless? Is this a social media problem or a problem of neglect?

· From 2011 to 2021, boys who felt persistently sad and hopeless increased from 21% to 29%. With only an 8% increase (compared to the 21% increase for girls), is this a gender issue?

· How is social media impacting — positively — those who are experiencing “hopelessness or loneliness”? Is it providing community, connections, or voice?

· Within this 57%, what are the varying degrees (normal, mild, debilitating) of “hopelessness or loneliness”?[3]

Secondly, let’s look at the CDCs actual recommendation. According to the CDC, healing “hopelessness or loneliness” doesn’t demand a social media solution. Rather, it requires an investment in our school systems:

“High school should be a time for trailblazing, not trauma. These data show our kids need far more support to cope, hope, and thrive,” Debra Houry, M.D., M.P.H., CDC’s Chief Medical Officer and Deputy Director for Program and Science. “Proven school prevention programs can offer teens a vital lifeline in these growing waves of trauma.”

My wife’s been a teacher for 25 years. I’ve watched her work in loud, overcrowded classrooms. I’ve seen the statewide disrespect in terms of underpayment, underfunding, and understaffing. I’ve heard stories of violence and classroom disruptions. I’ve heard of troublemakers who are allowed — over and over and over — to make trouble, always allowed to return. I’ve watched teachers lose their ability to discipline, remove, or expel students, even in the face of danger or threat.

For politicians, the cheap and easy solution is “social media.” But is it the right solution? If we truly cared about our children, we’d reduce classroom over-crowding, increase teacher salaries, and boost school staffing. We’d be willing to do the hard work and spend the money that’s required to solve this:

According to the U.S. Department of Education, all 50 states reported teacher shortages in more than one area for the 2022–2023 school year. … As a result, several schools and districts were forced to increase class sizes, cancel courses, add duties to the responsibilities of currently employed teachers, and hire people who are not fully qualified to fill the positions — none of which benefit students’ learning.

And this:

Teacher pay has suffered a sharp decline compared with the pay of other college-educated workers. On average, teachers made 26.4% less than other similarly educated professionals in 2022 — the lowest level since 1960.

And this:

Schools are experiencing an ongoing nationwide school counselor shortage. Forty-eight states are above the recommended students to school counselor ratio of 250:1.

And this:

[A]ccording to a study from the American Educational Research Association, teachers in the U.S. are 40% more likely to experience symptoms of anxiety in comparison with healthcare workers, 20% more likely than office workers, and 30% more likely than workers in other professions like farming and military.

Yes to Child Safety; No to Youth Sports

Everyone knows someone whose child has been hurt by [youth sports]. I’ve heard too many stories to count.

I do … I do know a lot of children who’ve been hurt by youth sports. In the sixth grade, my brother fouled a baseball into his eye and suffered an orbital fracture. A few years ago, a friend’s son suffered a severe concussion while playing football. The boy was only 14-years-old. During a baseball game, my nephew’s cleat caught in the dirt, and he tore something in his hip. He was on crutches for several months. And on a cold Friday night, I witnessed a high school athlete violently wrench his leg; his screams were unnerving in the silence of the stadium.

According to Stanford Medicine:

· More than 3.5 million children ages 14 and younger get hurt annually playing sports or participating in recreational activities.

· Sports and recreational activities contribute to approximately 21 percent of all traumatic brain injuries among American children.

· More than 775,000 children, ages 14 and younger, are treated in hospital emergency rooms for sports-related injuries each year.

· Almost 215,000 children ages 5 to 14 were treated in hospital emergency rooms for football-related injuries.

Politicians like Paul Renner champion child safety, but do they really care about child safety? Or do they care more about lightening rod issues, scoring political points, and Band-Aid fixes? Because one of the surest ways to keep children safe is to restrict youth sports.[4]

Or let’s save lives by raising the driving age to 20 years old:

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), seven teenagers are killed in car crashes nearly every day. … Among all teen drivers, male drivers and 19-year-old drivers were most likely to be involved in car crashes.

Or let’s improve education by restricting part time jobs:

Teens who work more than 20 hours a week are more likely to be less engaged in school, less likely to excel in school, and more likely to fall victim to problem behavior like stealing, carrying a weapon, and using alcohol and illegal drugs.

Or let’s eliminate toxic relationships by eliminating teen relationships:

Teenagers engaged in toxic, controlling dating relationships may be at risk for a variety of problems as they enter adulthood, including drug use, as well as mental and physical health struggles ….

[The] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in 2021, nearly 20% of teenage girls said they had been victims of violent sexual behavior. More than 1 in 10 said they had been raped.

[The] overall prevalence of physical violence was 20%, while psychological abuse was much more common, at up to 88%. That includes verbal and nonverbal controlling behavior.

Or let’s cure mental health by banning children from political talk, news, and affiliation:[5]

Research shows that political events have a significant impact on teen mental health. The Jed Foundation is a nonprofit whose mission is to support teen and young adult well-being. And the foundation puts the 2024 election at the top of its list of current trends affecting youth mental health.

Furthermore, a Jed Foundation report on youth suicide found that more than two-thirds of young people report feeling “very or somewhat stressed” about our nation’s future. Specifically, 60 percent of youth ages 16–25 say they are either very or extremely worried about the climate.

Nine Terrifying Words

I write all this for four reasons:

1. More and more, politicians are telling me how to raise, school, and educate my kids … what they can read, how they should spend their time, what’s good for them and bad for them.

2. More and more, politicians, reporters, and researchers tell a one-sided story when it comes to social media. Yes, social media needs an overhaul, but the false narrative portrays every child and teen as negatively affected (while also ignoring the positives).

3. More and more, we’re locked in an echo chamber, not one caused by social media but one created by the loudest voices … biased voices that stoke fear (not fact) and play loose with the data.

4. More and more, politicians legislate simple solutions. When it comes to helping children, they fixate on technology[6] but ignore the most glaring problems … underpaid teachers, underfunded classrooms, and understaffed schools.

There’s a reason politicians don’t protect children from youth sports, teen driving, part-time jobs, and politics. Despite the damaging data and the harm these things cause, we leave it to parents (and their children) to decide what’s best. Together, they weigh the risks of youth sports. Together, they learn caution on the road. Together, they seek balance between school and work. Together, they discuss the issues facing America.

Politicians like Paul Renner say they’re here to help. They say social media is harming my daughter when I’ve only seen social media help her learn, grow, and create. Yes, there is bullying and danger on social media,[7] but my daughter has experienced none of it.[8] Paul Renner doesn’t know me as a parent; my kids don’t fit into his assumptions. Paul Renner — like so many other overreaching politicians — says he’s here to help, but as Ronald Reagan warned:

The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.

[1] This observation is fundamentally misleading. To say that “Everyone knows someone whose child has been hurt by social media” wrongly implies two things: 1) that everyone is hurt by social media, and 2) that nobody is helped by social media. I’ve written before that my 16-year-old daughter has thrived and benefited — unharmed — from social media. Again, social media can definitely harm children, but it hasn’t harmed every child. And research shows — though most politicians ignore it — that social media (despite the negatives) can positively impact young people:

A majority of adolescents report that social media helps them feel more accepted (58%), like they have people who can support them through tough times (67%), like they have a place to show their creative side (71%), and more connected to what’s going on in their friends’ lives (80%). In addition, research suggests that social media-based and other digitally-based mental health interventions may also be helpful for some children and adolescents by promoting help-seeking behaviors and serving as a gateway to initiating mental health care.

[2] I don’t doubt that Paul Renner wants to help children. But “social media” is an easy, cheap, and popular villain. Moreover, social media restrictions are an erosion of rights … both constitutional and parental.

[3] The question asked was: “During the past 12 months, did you ever feel so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that you stopped doing some usual activities?” This raises more questions: What was the degree of “sad or hopeless”? What “usual activities” were stopped and for how long? What constitutes “almost every day”?

[4] I love youth sports, and I’m not advocating that we restrict/ban them. Rather, I’m advocating that we stop the hypocrisy, selective outrage, and turning a blind eye when it’s politically and personally convenient.

[5] Might we be better off if children were instructed on the dangers of political affiliation? If, at a young age, they were taught that choosing a side — instead of working with others — is the root cause of democracy’s destruction. As Madison warned in Federalist Papers №10 (1787):

Complaints are everywhere heard … that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority. … By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed [sic] to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

[6] If the distinction is “technology,” then why do “dangerous” video games go unregulated? Why haven’t “dangerous” metal bats been outlawed from youth sports? Why aren’t children restricted from exploring the “dangerous” Internet? Or if the distinction is “addiction,” then why haven’t we banned — amongst children — highly addictive (and potentially harmful) caffeine, sugar, junk food, and soda? Or the “dangerous” addiction that triggers too much screen time and digital media?

[7] Some parents (not all) will point to “social media” as a danger to their children. But what about the parents whose children are put in danger by athletic tryouts? Studies show that students can benefit greatly from making a sports team. These benefits include:

· fewer mental health issues and less emotional distress

· lower anxiety and depression rates:

· higher self-esteem and confidence:

· less substance abuse and risky behaviors:

· reduced suicide risk:

· improved academic performance:

· increased creativity:

· greater enjoyment of various forms of physical activity

Despite these benefits, thousands of students (from middle school to high school) are cut from school teams each year. Not only do these children lose the benefits, they suffer the following consequences:

[W]e know first-hand the positive impact that participation in sports can have on child development. We are also acutely aware that many children and youth do not have the chance to attain these benefits as they are cut from teams, which is sometimes referred to as de-selection.

Findings from our research confirm that de-selection cuts deep. There are negative emotional, social and physical consequences. Athletes lose friends and are forced to find new social circles. They question their own identities and can feel lost and adrift.

Perhaps quite obviously, their self-esteem is shaken. Time spent being physically active is reduced — not being on the team means no more practices and games.

Cutting also deters athletes from future participation in the same sport, due to lowered perceptions of ability in that sport. As well, when no specific feedback is provided as to why athletes are cut, there is a tendency to assume a low level of skill and a prediction of future failure. The same results happen when athletes are given feedback about things they can’t change like, “You’re too short.”

This seems like a no-brainer: schools that cut athletes and expose them to metal dangers while also denying them mental benefits should be forced (legislated) to enact a no-cut policy. If banning “dangerous” books or “dangerous” technology is a proper use of government oversight, then banning “dangerous” athletic practices is too. A few schools actually recognize this “danger”; to mitigate it, they’ve enacted a no-cut policy:

Where sports are concerned, University Lake School [Wisconsin] takes a different tactic. The athletic program has a no-cut policy, which means any student who wants to play a sport automatically makes the team. “There are no tryouts,” said ULS Athletic Director Danny Ehnert. “Everybody (interested in playing) is there on the first day of practice. Everybody is welcome.”

This open-door policy helps ensure a small school such as ULS is able to play full teams, especially at the high school level. But this inclusive approach also encourages more participation. Ehnert estimated that 95% of ULS students play one sport — and, of that group, 60 to 70% participate in a second one as well.

In his eyes, this high percentage “does tie back to (students) being comfortable, them not necessarily being worried about not making the team, and how that looks and feels,” he said. “(The policy) definitely empowers them to try other things on campus that they might not have.”

And no, you can’t argue the opposite … that cutting children from teams has certain benefits (e.g., resiliency, motivation, life lessons). In arguments for child safety, the potential positives are rarely acknowledged, only the negatives … and the data shows that school cuts have both a negative impact and a positive denial.

[8] I feel deeply for parents whose children have been harmed by social media. But education, intervention, and improvement are better fixes than government intrusion and blanket bans. Every year, students experience bullying and harm at school. Every year, students experience bullying and harm in the locker room. Every year, students experience bullying and harm because of their clothes, appearance, and style. The answer, however, isn’t to shut out and shut down. The answer is expanded staffing, improved systems, better education, increased investment, and parental empowerment.

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Travis Burchart

Social media expert, higher education advocate, writer, Founding Fathers fan, lawyer in a past life