Social media companies are exploiting our teens. We need to hold them accountable.
If you’re the parent of a teenager, you already know it’s unthinkable to be without their phones. On average, teens check their social media 100 times a day or nearly once every ten minutes, to make sure they haven’t missed a Snap or a set of likes. A 2023 study in JAMA Pediatrics found that incessant checking of social media actually alters teenage brains. In fact, using social media produces the same addictive response as gambling and recreational drugs.
Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and others know this, centering their business models on developing algorithms designed to addict their young brains, which negatively impacts their psychological development.
As the mother of a 14-year-old and the producer of Anxious Nation, the award winning documentary film intended to spur solutions to our teen mental health crisis, I do believe social media can be a positive tool for young people. In fact, a recent McKinsey study showed its potential to serve as a helpful source of connection for teens. However, the element of social media that allows hurtful and harmful content to proliferate unchecked, influencing our kids, is deeply dangerous.
Shockingly, these companies are protected from any culpability under Section 230, a provision of the Communications Decency Act that prevents technology companies from being sued for hosting harmful or offensive third-party material. The law was established in 1996 – well before the advent of social media and any sort of understanding of its harmful content. We don’t let tobacco or alcohol companies self-regulate, nor can they market their products to our kids. When Juul promoted fruit flavored vapes to our youth, a groundswell of pushback from parents helped put a swift end to it. We hold these companies responsible for the irreparable damage they cause. It should be no different for social media.
U.S. Attorney General Vivek Murthy’s new advisory about the dangers of social media on teens’ mental health, and the general state of youth mental health in America, is terrifying. A CDC study found that in 2021, 57% of high school girls reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless in the past year and nearly 1 in 3 seriously considered suicide in 2021. Numerous campaigns have prompted kids to participate in some very dangerous stunts, including eating Tide Pods, suffocating themselves as part of the Blackout Challenge, or attempting suicide as a result of the ‘Momo challenge’. One needs only to log on to Instagram or TikTok to get ready-made advice about how to starve themselves.
Here’s the worst of it: social media companies knowingly exploit this. They do it through algorithms designed to put the most compelling content in front of a young viewer. The more time spent searching for content that can hurt them, the more they see it, and the more money these companies make, putting profit over people.
Holding the end user completely responsible or raising the age to use these platforms is not the answer. Meaningful resolution starts with building a massive groundswell of support from parents and caregivers, calling on our leaders to regulate these companies. Here’s what we can do:
Sound the alarm on the Section 230 loophole. If more parents were aware of the protections of Section 230, we would generate significant public outcry to protect our kids. We need to repeal Section 230 to ensure these companies are held responsible for the dangerous content they allow on their platforms.
Champion local efforts to regulate social media companies. Promising bills are moving forth that deserve greater attention. In California, Senator Nancy Skinner has introduced a bill to hold tech companies accountable for addicting kids to social media and imposes significant financial penalties for doing so. Parents need to seek out the local policy champions against social media exploitation in their localities and encourage the passage of these bills.
Support organizations who are doing the hard work for this cause. Many organizations provide helpful resources to parents and caregivers about ways to protect our kids from harmful third-party content on social media. Some of my favorites are Common Sense Media, Enough is Enough, and the Organization for Social Media Safety.
Parents who are inspired to protect their children can achieve incredible things. From Candy Lightner, who started Mothers Against Drunk Driving, to the “million moms” who marched and stood up against gun violence, these movements have the power to change the world for the better. It’s time for a new parent-led movement to protect our kids from the dark and dangerous side of our tech-driven world.
Laura Morton is a multiple New York Times-bestselling author and co-director, producer, and writer of “Anxious Nation.” To learn more, please visit anxiousnation.com