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Instead of just banning TikTok, policymakers should explore Gen Z’s online behaviors


Instead of just banning TikTok, policymakers should explore Gen Z’s online behaviors

Jun 04, 2023 | 9:00 am ET
By Michael Bugeja
Instead of just banning TikTok, policymakers should explore Gen Z’s online behaviors
(Stock photo via Canva)

Policymakers concerned about TikTok and other popular platforms should explore Gen Z’s intense relationship with them, increasing awareness about risks and enhancing digital literacy in the process.

“Young People and Information: A Manifesto,” a handbook edited by Alex Grech, director of the 3CL Foundation and a senior lecturer at the University of Malta, informs digital natives about the requisite skills needed to navigate the internet. Of critical importance is knowledge about how information is created, circulated and shared online.

The Foundation, also located in Malta, called on scholars to identify critical issues and offer solutions. I was included as an expert on technology and social change.

The group was tasked with addressing problems associated with media freedom, misinformation and teen online behaviors. Goals were to enhance digital literacy, critical thinking and trust in internet.

You can download the handbook and other reports by clicking here. There’s some background to the manifesto on this post.

The Foundation is a prominent voice in the European Union whose countries are dealing with the same issues plaguing the United States.

Some 34 states, including Iowa, have enacted prohibitions against TikTok on government-issued devices. Last month, Montana issued a complete ban of the application, beginning in January 2024.

The focus on TikTok, a Chinese company, concerns that country’s Communist Party accessing user data. But of greater concern to many parents and educators are the time that youth spend on the platform and the effects that might have on their development.

A Pew Research study found that 67% of teens aged 13-17 use TikTok, with 16% doing so “almost constantly.”

YouTube is used by 95% of teens. Some 60% patronize Instagram and Snapchat. Other popular platforms are Twitter, Twitch, WhatsApp, Reddit and Tumblr.

Time spent on these apps has been linked to a rise in mental health issues along with disruption of sleep, lack of exercise, poor school grades and mood swings.

Increasingly users turn to social media rather than parents or physicians when diagnosing themselves with a mental illness. According to The New York Times, exposure to such issues may increase awareness but also have resulted “in people incorrectly labeling themselves, avoiding a professional assessment and embracing ineffective or inappropriate treatments.”

Other risks include so-called “challenges” to produce altered states of mind. One such TikTok challenge involved taking a dozen Benadryl tablets to trigger a hallucination, causing the death earlier this year of a 13-year-old Ohio boy.

NPR reports some 1,385 deaths due to YouTube’s “blackout challenge” involving teens holding their breath or choking so that they can experience passing out.

These and other hazards are due in part to poor moderation of content.

“Social media platforms have failed to self-regulate,” the handbook states. “In keeping with the internet, profit trumps prudence.”

People patronize social media without reading their terms of service or understanding their marketing strategies, making it difficult to hold such companies accountable.

The situation now is critical as artificial intelligence merges with popular media. Despite mass adoption and global hype, generative AI such as Chat GPT lacks ethical values and thus is unable to differentiate between truth and falsehood. “Algorithm-based content moderation is barely able to cope with the present volume of content it must filter.”

The handbook reminds tech companies that users are human. “We are not data.” While people have a socio-technical existence, “it is not for sale or exploitation.”

Moreover, educators must add digital and media literacy to curricula. “We need to raise awareness among young people of the need to protect themselves from the various shortfalls of mis- and disinformation on social media platforms.”

Fact-checking resources also are required so that students can identify fake news as well as help create accurate content.

Companies, policymakers and regulators must protect young people from online predators and cyberbullying. “We need to call out revenge porn, deepfake applications and other behaviors online that target vulnerable individuals.”

The handbook identifies malicious issues involving hate speech and online harassment. Violence against women must be regarded as a public health issue.

“Alongside freedom of speech and the press, we advocate freedom of conscience that embraces equality and empathy for all.”

The manifesto is only a first step in advocating for positive change. The 3CL Foundation is considering such future initiatives as teen-produced podcasts, training of citizen journalists, youth-organized workshops, targeted campaigns for additional safeguards, and additional publications, vlogs and videos.

Those wishing to contact the Foundation to explore collaboration about these and other projects can write to Alex Grech care of the 3CL Foundation, 89 Archbishop Street, Valletta, VLT 1448, Malta/EUROPE. He also is accessible via email at [email protected] and via LinkedIn and Twitter.