Children under 14 could be banned from having social media accounts in South Australia, with a review now underway.

SA Premier Peter Malinauskas has appointed a former High Court chief justice to examine how the state could implement a ban on platforms including Instagram and TikTok.

So why is South Australia doing this? And how would it actually work?

Why does SA want to impose the ban?

Mr Malinauskas said the proposal was fuelled by concerns that social media was contributing to mental illness in young people.

“We are seeing mounting evidence from experts of the adverse impact of social media on children, their mental health and development,” Mr Malinauskas said. 

Mr Malinauskas said he was also concerned about how social media companies were using “addictive” algorithms to draw younger people in. 

Peter Malinauskas says the idea is aimed at improving mental health.(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

The government said it was responding to concerns from experts and the wider community about how social media platforms were exposing children to illegal content and cyber bullying. 

Australian mental health service ReachOut found this year that social media was the biggest concern for parents and carers with children.

“Our kids are being harmed now, and there’s no time to waste. I don’t want to sit around waiting for someone else. Let’s lead,” Mr Malinauskas said on Sunday. 

“If you are a social media giant and you are making money off the back of making our children unwell, we will not stop to see change.”

What would a ban look like?

Children under 14 in South Australia would be banned from having social media accounts, in what would be an Australian first. 

The rules would impact Tik Tok and Instagram.(ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale)

The government said children aged 14 and 15 would require parental consent to have social media access. 

However, it is still exploring how it could legally go about it.

Former High Court chief justice Robert French has been tasked with examining “the legal, regulatory and technological pathways” for the government to impose a ban. 

How would it be enforced?

That’s not clear. 

The premier said Mr French’s investigation, which has no deadline, would look at how to enforce the ban.

Mr Malinauskas said while the Australian Constitution states that media is the responsibility of the federal government, mental health falls to the states.

Joanne Orlando says social media bans would be difficult to enforce.(Supplied)

“If indeed the advice comes back to Mr French that this is very difficult for state governments to regulate, then I think it will leave an open field for the federal parliament to act,” he said. 

Joanne Orlando, an early childhood education lecturer at Western Sydney University, told the ABC enforcing a ban would not be easy.

Dr Orlando said teenagers would likely access social media through other means. 

“They [teenagers] are very savvy when it comes to technology,” she said. 

“Banning just simply is removing one pathway and they’ll always find other pathways.”

What impact does social media have on young people?

According to ReachOut, about 30 per cent of parents and carers surveyed said social media and internet use had “a lot” of impact on their teenager’s wellbeing. 

But Dr Orlando said blocking teenagers from accessing social media would just put issues around social media use on pause until they were older.

The ABC spoke with several teenagers in Adelaide to get their reaction.(ABC News: Nethma Dandeniya)

“Once they start using it, they still need to be able to understand the kind of content that they’re seeing on social media, the way algorithms work,” she said.

“Because it’s only with that knowledge can we then start to help young people to have a much more in control behaviour with social media so they can understand the content on there.”

Catherine Page Jeffery, a media and communications lecturer at University of Sydney, agreed and said blanket bans on social media use could have unintended consequences.

“I think it’s really important to remember that managing risks and developing resilience are really important skills for young people to develop and they’ll miss out on that if we just ban social media altogether,” Dr Page Jeffery said. 

Where else have children been banned from social media? 

Similar laws have come into effect in other parts of the world. 

Last year, Utah became the first US state to pass a law that placed restrictions on children’s access to social media, according to AP.

In March, Florida passed a law that blocked children under 14 years old from having a social media account.

Like SA’s proposal, the law requires children aged 14 and 15 years old to seek parental permission to use social media.

“A child in their brain development doesn’t have the ability to know that they’re being sucked into these addictive technologies and to see the harm and step away from it,” Florida Speaker Paul Renner said at the time. 

Arkansas followed in April 2023, but its laws do not apply to LinkedIn, Google and YouTube. 

What does the federal government say? 

In a statement, Federal Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland said the government welcomed any Australian jurisdiction seeking to keep Australians safe online. 

“The federal government is funding a $6.5 million age assurance trial in the upcoming federal budget to address children’s access to age inappropriate content online, including on social media,” the statement said.

“We are is also reviewing the Online Safety Act to ensure our online regulator eSafety has the powers it needs to keep Australians safe.”

Dr Page Jeffery said it was an issue that needed to be addressed at a higher level than state government.  

“Banning things might seem like the easy answer. I think it rarely is,” she said.

“Maybe we need to be legislating, to hold some of these super powerful platforms to a better standard — and that seems like a better approach.”

What do young people think?

The ABC spoke to several young people in Adelaide to get their thoughts on the plans.

Amy, 16, said she thought it was a good idea to prevent young people accessing “bad things” on social media. 

Amy (right) says the state government’s plan is a good idea.(ABC News)

“I think it’s a good thing. But it would be hard to enforce. I don’t think people are going to follow that,” Amy said. 

Matilda, 15, said she understood why the state government was interested in banning it, particularly because of the impacts on mental health.

“Especially Instagram and stuff … even just seeing what people were doing and then feeling left out and stuff like that,” she said. 

Abhir, 14, said he did not support the proposal and instead preferred the government make platforms safer for young people. 

“You should still be able to have social media but ban some stuff within social media to make it more safe for kids of all age[s],” he said.