Recently, dozens of states announced a massive lawsuit against Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, over concerns that the social media platforms’s addictive features are fueling the youth mental health crisis.
This lawsuit is considered the most significant effort by state enforcers to address the impact of social media on the mental health of America’s minors.
Policymakers and educators are undoubtedly pointing fingers at social media companies for many of today’s social ills from the erosion of democracy and hate speech to mass shootings and kids’ mental health crises. However, what is the right balance between government policymaking and parental involvement? There is no easy answer.
Nearly 41 states and the District of Columbia launched multiple lawsuits arguing that Meta violated state and federal laws as it created features and content experiences aimed at getting young users to spend more time on Facebook and Instagram.
The 233-page complaint alleges that Meta failed to inform parents about the information it collects from children and how that data is used as well as to obtain their permission prior to collecting this information. It also alleged that the company hid or misrepresented how addictive it is for young users and that its features could cause young users physical and mental harm.
California Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a press conference:
[There is] evidence that excessive and problematic social media use has been linked to sleep problems, attention problems and feelings of exclusion among young people…
As if being young isn’t hard enough — Meta knows all of this and more and yet has decided to disregard the serious dangers to promote their products to prominence to make a profit…
These lawsuits did not emerge out of thin air.
State policymakers have been investigating the social media company for years. In early 2021, Facebook announced that it was planning a kids’ version of Instagram aimed at users younger than 13. Then, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen leaked internal documents revealing the social media’s effects on teen mental health–known as the Facebook Files. In response, a group of state attorneys general launched an investigation culminating with these lawsuits.
Since then, Congress and states like California have introduced bills to reform companies like Meta and YouTube. In addition, states have introduced and passed various bills aimed at children online such as age verification in Utah, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and Virginia.
There’s no end in sight to the number of lawsuits and legislation aimed at reigning in Big Tech companies.
What This Means to Me
Children’s mental health is suffering today, just as their educational outcomes have faltered. Content on social media impacts young people for better and for worse. My colleague Meaghan Mobbs raised concerns about trends among teen girls and their social media usage that “girls experience increased adverse psychological impact from social media use and that girls with a social media profile demonstrated significantly lower mood and self-esteem than those without a profile.”
We should ask some critical questions though. Is social media the sole cause of the mental health crisis afflicting many young people? Certainly, the fact that social isolation during lockdowns and school closures spiked depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues plays a significant role. How much does social media cause versus amplify underlying issues among struggling teens? Doesn’t access to information, supportive communities, and other forms of help counteract some of the negative influences?
Parental involvement in their children’s social media usage is a less recognized influence. Parents cannot shirk their duties to keep tabs on what their children consume online, on television, through music, or video games. Certainly, the prevalence and easy access to videos, images, and messages from all corners of the world and all perspectives don’t make parents’ jobs easier, but parents still have a responsibility to be present and active.
Just as blaming violent video games for real-world violence is questionable, so is holding social media companies fully responsible for all mental health issues afflicting young people. Furthermore, expecting the government to solve these problems by slapping Big Tech with heavy penalties and regulations is no panacea.
As my colleague Patricia Patnode opined:
This individual relationship with technology is why K-12 online education and honest conversations about online activity are important and why laws that attempt to replace parental responsibility with state authority are doomed to fail.
As with junk food, at some point, it’s the parent’s job to intervene and teach their child how to maintain a healthy body and mind and watch for hazardous behavior.
Online literacy in schools, more parental proactivity, and enhanced parental controls are all ways that we can begin to change how young people engage online.
Policy solutions are not off the table but should be thoughtful, balanced and aimed at the root cause of issues.