On Tuesday, President Joe Biden referred to the harms of social media in his State of the Union address, announcing policy proposals to curb those harms. In response, however, some have been critical of the president’s remarks, accusing him of ignoring social media’s deeper dangers.
Over an hour into his speech, President Biden turned to mental health and the emotional toll the pandemic has had, especially on children. Then he turned to the emotional health toll exacted by social media, long before the first COVID-19 lockdowns.
“Children were also struggling before the pandemic – bullying, violence, trauma, and the harms of social media,” he said.
“It’s time to strengthen privacy protections, ban targeted advertising to children, demand tech companies stop collecting personal data on our children, and let’s get all Americans the mental health services they need.”
Last year, the Wall Street Journal obtained internal documents from former Facebook employee Frances Haugen revealing that Facebook leadership is well aware of its many harms to society. One such harm is the mental health effect its Instagram app has on teenage girls.
The tendency to share only the best moments, a pressure to look perfect and an addictive product can send teens spiraling toward eating disorders, an unhealthy sense of their own bodies and depression, March 2020 internal research states. It warns that the Explore page, which serves users photos and videos curated by an algorithm, can send users deep into content that can be harmful.
“Aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm,” the research states.Georgia Wells, Jeff Horwitz, and Deepa Seetharaman, “Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show” at Wall Street Journal
Despite this knowledge, Facebook leadership fails to do anything substantive to curb those harms. Documents provided by whistleblower Haugen “show(ed) that Facebook has made minimal efforts to address these issues and plays them down in public.” In fact, at the time Wall Street Journal was making these whistleblower revelations known, Facebook was in the process of developing a version of Instagram for young children. That project was postponed in the aftermath of the WSJ series.
Frances Haugen attended the State of the Union address as a guest of First Lady Jill Biden. President Biden thanked Haugen in the middle of his address for her courage, and the room gave her a standing ovation.
“As Frances Haugen, who is here tonight with us, has shown, we must hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit.”
Protecting children from the harmful effects of social media is an effort widely supported on both sides of the political aisle. In fact, it was one of four policy proposals Biden made as part of a “Unity Agenda,” largely uncontroversial proposals that act as an attempt to bring Democrats and Republicans together in a time of great division.
But not everyone was happy with how Biden addressed social media on Tuesday. Jason Miller, the CEO of new social media platform GETTR, accused the president of failing to address free speech and political discrimination on the largest social media platforms.
Miller called 2020 and 2021 “the worst years of political discrimination and political censorship in U.S. history,” referencing the early censorship of COVID theories that later turned out to be true, the coordinated coverup of the New York Post’s story on Hunter Biden in the weeks before the 2020 election, and the banning of Donald Trump from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Miller applauded Biden for addressing the “sick and twisted targeting of our children” and for inviting Frances Haugen, but ultimately said that the lack of any talk about free speech, censorship, and Section 230 “was a real missed opportunity.”
Still, the harmful effects social media has on children is a policy issue that has most Americans in agreement.
According to an advisory on youth mental health from the Surgeon General, the time teenagers spent on social media “more than doubled” during the pandemic, “from 3.8 to 7.7 hours per day.” Not only does this impact their mental health, but it is also an invasion of their privacy. Social media runs on data collection, and according to an estimate cited by a White House fact sheet released before Tuesday’s address, “online advertising firms hold 72 million data points on the average child by the time they reach the age of 13.”
Thus, Biden’s call for stronger protection and data privacy for the youngest online users.
The fact sheet lays out several policy action proposals, including ways to strengthen online privacy, ban online targeted advertising towards children, curb social media’s addictive nature, protect children from dangerous content, and invest in research to understand with greater clarity the true harms of social media on the young mind.
Toward that end, at least $5 million of the 2023 fiscal year budget is being dedicated “toward advancing research on social media’s harms, as well as the clinical and societal interventions we might deploy to address them.” In addition, a national Center of Excellence on Social Media and Mental Wellness will be launched under the Department of Health and Human Services.