Reviews | Government can (and should) make social media platforms safer for young users
Of all the experts looking at the effects of social media on young people, teen voices are often the least heard. Parents worry about the safety of their children. Social media companies worry about their ad revenue, user base, and potential regulations. Policymakers are pushing for regulations that protect teens. All the while, we watch sideways as these groups fight for the future of our social media practices, but we want to participate.
I realized that Instagram’s algorithms were increasing dangerous content that was driving teens to extreme diets because the company was making an estimated $228 million a year from followers of pro-eating disorder content.
As a college freshman researching the damaging effects of social media on teenage mental health and a survivor of a high school and eating disorder raising awareness of harmful dietary culture practices, we have seen firsthand how detrimental social media can be to the mental health of our friends and peers. We’ve also studied the latest neuropsychology behind these effects, and we’re concerned.
The value of our experience in the field cannot be ignored. At the height of my Instagram usage, I (Caroline) can’t count how many times the first thing I saw at the top of my feed was a “What I Eat in a Day” video. The words were spelled in a funky font and light pop music played in the background as a young woman explained her diet. A few more rolls and I came across an infographic outlining the “good and bad” foods to eat while in a calorie deficit. These food-related content feeds made my eating disorder recovery much more difficult because the foods my doctors recommended were always listed in the “don’t eat” column of these infographics. Later, I realized that Instagram’s algorithms were increasing dangerous content that was causing teens to go on extreme diets because the company was doing approximately $228 million per year off followers of pro-eating disorder content.
The algorithms are designed to engage users and keep them on the platform for as long as possible, regardless of the mental health effects. A study 2018 reported that frequent users of image-based social media platforms reported more anxiety, depression, and body image issues than less frequent users. Neuroimaging studies echo similar findings. Brain activity in the centers that stimulate emotion and attention increases when viewing digitally distorted images of bodies. As teenagers scroll endlessly across social media platforms in fear of missing out, increased attention to idealized body types increases the risk of developing body dissatisfaction, anxiety, and depression. Moreover, since social media platforms are designed to provide users with information that they pay more attention to – by liking, commenting or watching an entire video – these algorithms can create emotionally damaging content bubbles that feed adolescents with the very images that contribute to development. mental health disorders. Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to these negative effects. The emotional centers of our brain develop faster than the decision-making and impulse-control centersso rather than tapping into our heightened emotionality, is it too much to ask that social media be designed to keep our minds healthy?
Although we are vulnerable, we are not helpless. And as many teens will tell you, if you had to ask, not all social media platforms are bad. From virtual school years during the pandemic to friendships becoming remote during the freshman year of college, social media has been an essential tool in keeping us connected with the people we love.
It’s time for policy makers to help us help ourselves. A good first start is to support legislation that protects teens from the negative effects of social media. The Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), led by Senators Blackburn (R-TN) and Blumenthal (D-CT), holds social media platforms accountable, calls for more transparency with algorithms and their effects, gives teens and parents more options for maintaining our privacy and security on social media, and is devoting funds to further research on this topic.
Second, helping us help each other means giving us a seat at the table. Teens provide critical information that identifies the exact ways social media platforms and lawmakers can help us maintain our well-being. Bring us in from the outside and together let’s make social media safer for everyone.
Thirdly, given the recent tragedy of Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, supporting the health and safety of the country’s young people has never been more important.