Don’t be a product. Know when to sign off.

It’s time to shake off the glamour of social media.
Peace & Justice

In an exchange last November during a debate on the diminishing merits of liberalism, born-again social Democrat Sohrab Ahmari pointed out that American economic genius was once devoted to building big “stuff.” Now, he lamented, that creative power is devoted to constructing social media mind traps for children, deploying breakthroughs in neuroscience to build algorithmic infrastructure designed to transform children into ad-consuming zombies.

When Ahmari suggested banning such anti-family innovation, his rhetorical adversary in the debate, commentator George Will, saw an opening. Before bans became the preferred approach to containing threats to children, he said, such problems were dealt with more simply, through “parenting.”

It was a good line, and it drew some applause, even as Ahmari pointed out that, in our late capitalist society, overstressed working parents are often too exhausted to serve effectively as neurological guardians on top of everything else. There is, of course, another reason parents are not better able to parent their kids through social media’s onslaught. A lot of us are completely hooked ourselves.

I can’t be the only one who has admonished a child for his relentless pursuit of “likes” on Instagram only to have his own “Twitter problem” thrown back in his face by a too-observant offspring.


That awkward experience would merely be fodder for a droll observation of the contradictions of contemporary parenting if the stakes were not so high. Rates of anxiety and depression among school-aged children and teens have been escalating alarmingly. In 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association issued a joint statement to the Biden administration calling for child and adolescent mental health to be declared a national emergency.

Many of these pediatricians and psychologists believe an obsessive consumption of social media is a major contributor to the crisis. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, 95 percent of U.S. teens report using some kind of social media, and more than 1 in 3 say that they use social media “almost constantly.”

While most U.S. social media platforms pretend to require users to be at least 13 years old, nearly 40 percent of kids ages 8 to 12 are regular consumers of social media. Psychologists report that as much as 10 percent of the U.S. population meet the criteria for social media addiction—its use becoming a compulsion that mirrors the dopamine-driven reward and anxiety cycles of other addictions. The effects and the threat can be stronger among children whose brains are still developing.

We used to urge “custody of the eyes” to avoid carnal temptation; now we all have to worry over “custody of the mind.” Our time and capacity were once the most sought-after production inputs for capitalism. These days it is your eyeballs that are the contested commodity. Too many of us have been willing coconspirators in digital thralldom.


Some commonsense steps can help families shake off the glamour of social media: daily and weekly time limits, no-social-media Sundays, and phone-free dinners are all helpful strategies, but easing off technological addiction, whether to social media, video games, or Wikipedia rabbit holes, requires daily, even hourly discipline. As with other addictions, the first step is to acknowledge that you have a problem. Do some research and learn some more about the pernicious strategies of social media platforms that worry Ahmari and should worry you.

The Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma (well worth your time) includes a line that serves as a useful mantra if you are struggling to break away from online addiction: “If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.”

Don’t be a product, be a person and be a parent. Know when to sign off, step away, and step into your children’s lives.­ 

Read more Margin Notes from Kevin Clarke:


This article also appears in the January 2024 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 89, No. 1, pages 42). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Unsplash/Adrian Swancar

About the author

Kevin Clarke

Kevin Clarke is the chief correspondent for America magazine and author of Oscar Romero: Love Must Win Out (Liturgical Press).

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