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Social Media Companies Face Scrutiny Over Effects on Young People

American kids access the Internet and social media through their phones or a parent's phone every day.
WAER file photo
American kids access the Internet and social media through their phones or a parent's phone every day.

Social media companies are under increasing scrutiny from Congress in the wake of the Facebook whistleblower revelations about the company’s awareness of the harmful effect its platforms have on children.

Syracuse University Professor Jennifer Stromer-Galley has been studying social media for over two decades. She said social interactions, which are necessary for developing brains in young people, are increasingly mediated through social media platforms.

“It potentially creates warped senses of what is achievable and attainable for teens,” she said.

One of the most potentially harmful impacts is how heavy use of social media affects how teens view themselves. This warped self-image can increase eating disorders and other physical and mental health issues based on the content teens see.

“There is good research at this stage that provides strong evidence that heavy social media use especially with platforms with photo and video forward content tend to increase social comparisons, which is this tendency we have naturally to think about how we rate relative to our peers, to our friends, to celebrities,” she said. 

In addition, Stromer-Galley said the algorithms on platforms like YouTube and Tik Tok are designed to expose young people to harmful content.

“We can’t help but be taken in by extreme content. So even if we don’t want to see it, it’s hard for us not to watch it. And so that reinforces those algorithms that are trained on our behavior to then keep delivering more extreme content,” she said. 

How Would Regulation Help?

Several pieces of legislation are on the table intended to help protect children on the internet – the most recent being the KIDS Act, introduced at the end of September.

Proposals in the potential legislation include an eraser button to remove posts and data from teens’ social media profiles and restrictions on auto-play features that enable algorithmic recommendation.

The Senate has been holding hearings with social media companies in the last few weeks after whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed Facebook’s internal research showed awareness of Instagram’s negative effect on teens. Representatives for Snapchat, TikTok, and YouTube agree that there are problems, but all failed to voice support for the specific legislation at a hearing on Oct 26.

Stromer-Galley said a key part of regulation needs to be ending data gathering on children.

“One of the key pieces I think needs to be requiring that tech companies cannot track and collect behavioral and personal data on young people,” she said.

The data gathered on social media users is used in the algorithms that determine what content is recommended to them on platforms like TikTok and Instagram. If those algorithms were more randomized, Stromer-Galley said that would be a huge step in reducing online polarization.

“So rather than every recommendation, every ad that is being channeled to you on these platforms being tuned to your interests, to your prior behavior, to predictions of what you’re going to like. If there was a bit more randomness just thrown into that it would actually help, I think break that malignant behavior,” she said.

How teens use these platforms would change drastically if these algorithm adjustments were implemented. Tech companies have been resistant to these changes because of the effect it would have on their ability to make money through ads.

“It would mean potentially that users would engage less on the platform. So they wouldn’t spend as much time in infinite scroll mode because they would see less content that they would be commenting on, clicking on, watching,” Stromer-Galley said.

While Stromer-Galley said regulation won’t fix all the issues, she’s confident that it’s a step in the right direction.