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Report renews calls for research on social media’s impact on kids

Advocates want deeper look at how platforms impact mental health after internal research from Instagram leaked

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is under pressure about the impact of social media on kids and teens.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is under pressure about the impact of social media on kids and teens. (Bill Clark-Pool/Getty Images)

Child safety advocates say an explosive report that Facebook failed to disclose data showing its products negatively affect the mental health of teenagers should be the final straw for lawmakers worried about social media’s impact on young users.

Democrats and Republicans zeroed in on child safety as a bipartisan area of concern this year, even before a Wall Street Journal article published last week detailed internal research showing that teens — especially girls — blamed Instagram, a Facebook subsidiary, for anxiety and depression.

“Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” noted an internal presentation from 2020 that the newspaper obtained. Researchers found the mental health issues were often in relation to bullying or body image that, in some cases, led to eating disorders.

The report drew a swift response from Capitol Hill, with leaders on the Senate Commerce Committee disclosing they were in contact with a whistleblower from Facebook and pledging to “use every resource at our disposal to investigate what Facebook knew and when they knew it — including seeking further documents and pursuing witness testimony.”

Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, the top Republican on Commerce’s consumer protection subcommittee, said in a CNBC interview Sunday that she and Chairman Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., would hold a hearing on online child safety in the coming weeks that would include executives from Facebook, TikTok, Snapchat, Twitter and YouTube, which is owned by Google.

House members from both parties also wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg demanding his company abandon plans for a version of Instagram for children under 13.

But critics of Facebook who have spent years trying to spread awareness about risks posed to children by social media say it’s past time for allowing the company to research itself.

“This just reveals the naked and very disturbing truth that we have been saying for more than a decade,” Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, a national child advocacy nonprofit, told CQ Roll Call in an interview. “This is potentially a major moment of reckoning.”

Steyer said a priority should be bipartisan Senate and House legislation that would require the National Institutes of Health to fund research on how social media affects the cognitive, physical, social and emotional development of children. The research would provide a trustworthy alternative to information cherry-picked by private firms, Steyer said.

“For years, Facebook could have been doing a really positive public awareness campaign aimed at teenagers, girls and boys both, urging them to understand these issues and how to get help if they needed help,” Steyer said. “But they’ve tried to hide the research.”

‘Already feeling down’

In a blog post following the publication of the Journal story, Karina Newton, Instagram’s head of public policy, said the article cast the company’s internal research “in a negative light” when it actually “demonstrates our commitment to understanding complex and difficult issues young people may struggle with.”

Newton referred to findings by the Pew Research Center that indicate 81 percent of teenagers believe social media makes them feel more connected to their friends, while only 26 percent said it makes them feel worse about themselves.

“Our findings were similar,” Newton said. “Many said Instagram makes things better or has no effect, but some, particularly those who were already feeling down, said [it] may make things worse. In the research world, this isn’t surprising or unexpected. Issues like negative social comparison and anxiety exist in the world, so they’re going to exist on social media too.”

Critics, however, insist the algorithms powering social media apps often amplify harmful content, increasing how often a user will engage with it.

Steyer believes another priority for Congress should be updating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, known as COPPA, to account for future business endeavors by the companies, such as Instagram for kids.

In May, Sens. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and Bill Cassidy, R-La., proposed an update to COPPA that would extend the law’s protections, which currently only apply to children under 12, to those ages 12 to 16.

“Big Tech has a voracious appetite for kids’ attention and data, and these companies have no problem prioritizing their own profits over children and teens’ right to privacy,” Markey said at the time. “It’s time for Congress to swiftly put in place strict safeguards that stop these powerful platforms from tracking young people at every turn in the online ecosystem.”

Capitol Hill isn’t the only place where Steyer is hoping for action. He noted that the Federal Trade Commission voted last week to streamline consumer protection investigations in a slew of enforcement areas, including children. A probe of Facebook’s internal research and whether the company deceived the public would be “in the FTC’s crosshairs,” Steyer said.

“Hopefully, we’re going to get action from Congress as well as the FTC, immediately,” he said. “Because they’re really aware of it now.”  

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