Social media platforms are under fire for their failure to protect children against a wide range of issues, including mental health concerns and sexual exploitation. This will be the main topic at a January 31 US Senate hearing, where the CEOs from Meta, X, TikTok, Snap, and Discord will testify on what they’re doing — or not doing — to protect children on their platforms.

“Age-Gating” Social Media Draws Widespread Consumer Support

Forrester’s 2023 data shows that about two-thirds of online adults across the US, UK, and France agree that social media accounts should not be available to children under the age of 13. There is less widespread agreement on the “right” age threshold for parental consent for minors between the ages of 13–18, but more than half of online adults across the US, UK, and France do agree that social media companies should require parental consent for minors under 16 years old to sign up for accounts.

Hold “Big Tech” To The Same Standards As Other Industries

There are age restrictions on alcohol for many reasons due to a teenager’s lack of maturity in their brain development, including dependency risks and increased suicide rates. There are also age limits on movies to prevent children from seeing inappropriate or harmful content. Do these “issues” sound related to what’s happening on platforms such as TikTok and Instagram? They should. In social media:

  • Platform features encourage addictive behavior. Over 40 states have filed suits against Meta for knowingly designing “psychologically manipulative product features to induce young users’ compulsive and extended use.” As one member of Forrester’s ConsumerVoices Market Research Online Community put it, social media platforms “create peer pressure and make [minors] feel bad about themselves; they create a distraction that keeps [minors] from doing other more important tasks or healthy activities.”
  • Content deteriorates children’s mental health. The US Surgeon General’s Advisory found that adolescents aged 12–15 who spent over 3 hours a day on social media doubled their risk of “poor mental health outcomes.” Public concern is also growing. Forrester’s 2023 data shows that about two-thirds of online adults across the US, UK, and France agree that social media platforms negatively affect the mental health of minors. One member of Forrester’s ConsumerVoices panel told us, “Social media platforms always show the best, the prettiest, promoting beauty and unrealistic expectations. They are also prime for online bullying.”
  • Adult users exploit minors. Forrester’s 2023 data shows that 59% of online adults in the US and UK agree that social media platforms exploit minors. According to one member of Forrester’s ConsumerVoices panel, minors on social media “can be prone to predators who tell them what they want to hear.” Predators will pose as another child on social media and manipulate them for their own gain. There’s also rising concern about the children of influencer parents, whose photos and video content are used for financial gain without the child’s consent.

The Dilemma? Ads Targeting Children Generate Lots Of Ad Revenue

Ironically, despite calls for parental monitoring, consent, and age-gating, only about half of online adults in the US, UK, and France think that brands should not advertise to minors on social media platforms, Forrester’s data shows. This type of advertising is a huge business: One study found that social media companies collected nearly $11 billion in ad revenue from minors in the US in 2022, $2 billion of which came from users under the age of 12. With advertising dollars on the line, social media platform executives simply aren’t incentivized to restrict or protect children on their platforms.

These calls from regulators to protect kids on social media will push social media platforms toward a variety of changes and product updates — including parental consent requirements, tools that enforce age limits, parental monitoring features, and time limits for minors. Implementing even a few of these changes might negatively impact ad revenue, but they would positively impact our children.

Forrester clients: Let’s talk more about your social media strategy via a Forrester guidance session.