Social Media

Lawmakers want social media companies to stop getting kids addicted

Lawmakers want social media companies to stop getting kids addicted

Alexis Tapia opens TikTok every morning when you wake up and every night before bed. The 16-year-old from Tucson, Arizona says she has a complicated relationship with the social media app. Most of what flashes on her screen makes her smile, like funny videos that poke fun at the weirdness of puberty. She really likes the app, until she has trouble putting it down. “There are millions of videos popping up,” she says, describing the #ForYou page, the endless stream of content that acts as TikTok’s home screen. “It makes it really difficult to come down. I say I’m going to quit, but I don’t.

Surveillance of children, especially teenagers, and screens has intensified in recent months. Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager turned whistleblower, told a US Senate subcommittee last fall that the company’s own research showed that some teenagers had reported Addiction-like negative experiences on his photo-sharing service, Instagram. The damage was more pronounced in adolescent girls. “We have to protect the children,” Haugen said in his testimony.

Proposals to “protect the children” have sprung up in the United States, attempting to curb the habitual appeal of social media to its youngest users. A bill in Minnesota would prevent platforms from using recommendation algorithms for kids. In California, a proposal would allow parents to sue social media companies to make their children dependent. And in the US Senate, a sweeping bill called the Child Online Safety Act would force social media companies, among other things, to create tools for parents to monitor screen time or turn off attention-grabbing features like autoplay.

The negative impact of social media on children and teens has worried parents, researchers and lawmakers for years. But this latest resurgence of public interest appears to be sparked in the particular crucible of the Covid-19 pandemic: parents who have been able to take refuge at home have seen their children’s social and school lives become entirely mediated by the technology, raising concerns about screen time. The fear and isolation of the past two years have hit teenagers hard and exacerbated what the US Surgeon General recently called “devastating”. mental health problems facing teenagers.

The children have been there. Could cracking down on social media help make the internet a better place for them?

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Proponents of the new legislation have likened Big Tech’s harm to children’s mental health to the dangers of cigarette smoking. “We’re in a place where social media companies and teenagers are no different than we were with tobacco companies, where they marketed products to children and weren’t upfront with the public,” says California Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham leading AB 2408 with Assemblyman Buffy Wicks. The bill would allow parents to sue platforms like Instagram, Tiktok and Snap if their child is harmed by a social media addiction. Social media companies have no financial incentive to slow down child scrolling, and “public shaming only gets you so far,” Cunningham says.

But unlike the physical harm of tobacco, the exact relationship between social media use and children’s mental health remains disputed. A high profile study which has tracked rising rates of depression, self-harm, and suicide among adolescents in the United States since 2012 has proposed “heavy use of digital media” as a contributing factor. But still others to research found that frequent use of social media is not a significant risk factor for depression. Even the internal documents revealed by Haugen resist any simple interpretation: the Facebook study had a sample size of just 40 teenagers, more than half of whom said that Instagram also helped counter feelings of loneliness. It is also difficult to disentangle the mental health harms of social media from other psychological harms in a child’s life, such as health fears during an ongoing pandemic or the threat of school shootings, which leave a lasting psychological balance on the students.

There is also no scientific consensus on what a social media addiction is. “I fear the medical and psychological communities are still figuring out what defines digital behavioral ‘addiction’ versus other terms like problematic media use,” says Jenny Radesky, who studies children, parenting and digital media use at the University of Michigan. CS Mott Children’s Hospital. In addition to his research, Radesky helps shape the American Academy of Pediatrics’ policy agenda on children and technology. She also works with Designed With Kids in Mind, a campaign to raise awareness of how design techniques shape children’s online experiences.

Radesky advocates a more nuanced interpretation of the relationship between social media and youth mental health. “People trying to ‘protect children’ in digital spaces are often a bit paternalistic about it,” she says. Well-meaning adults often view children as objects to be protected, not subjects of their own experience. Instead of focusing on minutes spent on screens, she suggests, it’s worth asking how kids set norms around technology. How do they integrate it into the rest of their lives and relationships? How can parents, policy makers and voters take this into account?

But not all parents are able to engage in meaningful dialogue with their children about screen time. This poses an equity problem: those with multiple jobs, for example, may not be able to provide screen time safeguards, and their children may be more prone to overuse than children of wealthy parents.