Social Media’s Potential Harms Continue To Be In The Spotlight – Media, Telecoms, IT, Entertainment | #socialmedia



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Social Media’s Potential Harms Continue To Be In The Spotlight


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The Bottom Line

  • President Biden, Congress, state attorneys general and social
    media users are seeking to hold social media platforms accountable
    for their mental health impacts on children and teens. 

  • As President Biden calls for stronger online protections for
    young people, companies should be evaluating their privacy
    practices related to children and prioritizing the safety of
    children and teenagers when they are designing and developing their
    online products and services. 

President Biden, during his first State of the Union address,
called on Congress to “strengthen privacy protections, ban
targeted advertising to children, [and] demand [that] tech
companies stop collecting personal data on our children.”
Specifically, the President is asking Congress to invest in
research on social media’s mental harms, noting that there has
already emerged research suggesting that social media is associated
with negative mental health outcomes, particularly among young
people, and that children under 18 are disproportionately
vulnerable to the dangerous and harmful content they might
encounter online. 

The President’s agenda calls for prioritizing
safety-by-design standards and ensuring platforms and other
interactive digital service providers prioritize the health, safety
and well-being of young people above profit in the design of their
products and services.

The President’s agenda reflects Washington’s focus on
mental health issues facing children and teens as a result of the
rise in social media’s popularity. The U.S. Surgeon-General has
stated that, “when not deployed responsibly and safely, these
tools can pit us against each other, reinforce negative behaviors
like bullying and exclusion, and undermine the safe and supportive
environments young people need and deserve.”

These issues were highlighted at the end of last year, when
Instagram’s mental health impacts on children and teens became
the focus of a congressional hearing after the leak of internal
research suggesting that teenagers suffered body image issues as a
result of using Instagram. The hearing focused on concerns that the
platform:

  • manipulates users’ behavior to boost engagement and extend
    time spent on the platform, which the platform monetizes through ad
    sales;

  • designs algorithms intended to push teens toward toxic content
    so that they stay on the platform. By way of example, Senator
    Blumenthal noted that content about dieting tips leads the
    algorithm to provide increasingly extreme videos about weight loss,
    eventually exposing the user to content about eating disorders;
    and 

  • enables negative social comparison, which intensifies the
    platform engagement of teens struggling with body image, anxiety or
    other mental health issues, worsening their symptoms. 

State Attorneys General are also investigating the mental and
emotional harms caused by social media, which may violate state
consumer protection laws. At least 11 states are involved in an
ongoing investigation into Meta, Facebook’s parent company, for
promoting Instagram despite knowing of the aforementioned harms and
failing to protect children and teens on its platforms. 

Recently, at least eight states announced that they are
investigating TikTok, which is owned by ByteDance, to determine
whether the design and promotion of its platform harms
teenagers’ and young adults’ physical and mental
health.

Moreover, there have been at least two lawsuits filled that
focus on the potentially harmful nature of social media platforms.
In Rodriguez v. Meta Platforms Inc., et al.,
the plaintiff alleges that Meta Platforms Inc., Snap Inc., TikTok
Inc. and ByteDance knowingly designed their respective apps to be
addictive and encourage excessive use – making such platforms
responsible for the suicide of the plaintiff’s eleven-year-old
daughter. Similarly, in Doffing vs. Meta Platforms, Inc., et al.,
plaintiffs allege that Meta Platforms Inc. and Snap Inc. knew that
their platforms were unreasonably dangerous and intentionally
designed to be addictive to minor users, resulting in severe
emotional harms. 

While social media platforms including Instagram and TikTok have
added new safety and privacy measures aimed at protecting young
users, the potential harms caused by social media continue to be an
area of focus. We anticipate further developments in this area,
particularly as lawmakers have introduced a number of bills aimed
at limiting data tracking and targeted advertising to children.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.

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