Social Media Harms
100 Peer-Reviewed Studies Document the Mental Health and Societal Harms of Social Media Use
Denial of Social Media Harms Continues Despite Ample Evidence to the Contrary — 13 Senators Support Legislation Regulating Big Tech
Updated May 12, 2022 to add new U.S. Senators to the bi-partisan list of legislators that support regulation of Big Tech.
Social Media Harms (SMH) reached a grim milestone this week. SMH lists now contain over 100 peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate negative effects of social media use upon adults, adolescents and children including depression, anxiety and emotional contagion and demonstrate real-life consequences of these harms.
These lists are in sharp contrast to the October 2021 opinion piece by Dr. Lawrence Steinburg in the New York Times who asserts that “ No research..has demonstrated that exposure to Instagram…harms teenage girls’ psychological well-being.”
Social Media Harms’ list of peer-reviewed studies documenting harms to adolescents includes several studies that specifically cite problematic Instagram use as predictors of depression and anxiety, including the United Kingdom (UK)’s 2017 Royal Society for Public Health #StatusofMind report. The list currently contains 34 studies documenting harms to adolescents using a variety of social media platforms.
SMH also provides lists of authoritative articles documenting the dark side of the internet including youth harms. The most recent article on this list, written on April 26, 2022, by Rhiannon Williams and published in the MIT Technology Review, reveals that the United States (US) as of March 2022 hosts 30% of the global total of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) URLs, and is the country hosting the greatest amount of CSAM in the world. This assertion is based upon a report by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), a UK-based organization that works to combat online child exploitation.
The US position of becoming the number one host of CSAM was partially due to increased governmental action in The Netherlands since 2017. The Dutch have reduced from “41% of global CSAM at the end of 2021 to 13% by the end of March 2022 according to the IWF.” One reason CASM content providers moved internet hosting services from the Netherlands to the US might be due to lax regulation and poor enforcement of existing laws. Federal law requires that electronic service providers report CSAM to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), once it is reported to them or face a $150,000 fine. Companies are not required to actively search for CSAM content on their platforms.
Social psychologist Dr. Jonathan Haidt, Ph.D., often compares teens and children in the US growing up after the wide-spread use of smartphones, approximately 2012, as “canaries in the coal mine.” This referred to the mining practice used in England until 1986 that kept canaries in coal mines to detect carbon monxide and other deadly gasses.
Another analogy could be the US government’s response to the use of thalidomide in pregnancy. Thalidomide is a drug used today under stringent precautions to treat leprosy and multiple myeloma. It is a beneficial drug for many patients. However, in the 1950s and 1960s, it was heavily marketed in 46 countries as a nonaddictive, nonbarbiturate sedative to prevent morning sickness. Unfortunately, the side effects of thalidomide included peripheral neuropathy in the mothers and caused severe birth defects in some children.
Mothers and children in the U.S. were spared from tragedy because of the actions of US governmental agencies who were empowered to act through US governmental regulations. The Food and Drug Administration, despite great pressure, would not approve thalidomide for use in pregnancy due to clinical reports of serious side effects.
US governmental regulation spared many Americans from tragedy because a US governmental agency would not approve a drug to treat a largely non-fatal complication of pregnancy due to safety concerns.
The thalidomide analogy fails in one respect. The U.S. Congress has not given any U.S. agency the authority to regulate social media and internet platform technologies, ensure consumer protections or mandate research requirements to protect the public.
Many studies show positive effects of social media use, but these must be compared with the studies that document negative effects of use of internet services to ensure the safety of all users, especially those at increased risk. The US government needs to play a role in determining if the feel-good, social benefits of social media use are contributing to harmful consequences to vulnerable users.
Public conversations in the U.S. must change from “if social media has negative consequences” to:
- Which users experience negative consequences and why?
- What actions must companies and governments take to protect at risk people?
Other Countries Are Regulating Social Media and Internet Service Platforms
The European Union (EU) Parliament and EU member states reached an agreement on April 23, 2022 to approve the Digital Services Act (DSA) which will: “provide better protection for internet users and their fundamental rights, as well as define a single set of rules in the internal market, helping smaller platforms to scale up.” DSA regulations will be in full effect on January 1, 2024.
On March 1, 2022, the Internet Information Service Algorithmic Recommendation Management Provisions”“ went into effect in the People’s Republic of China as reported by Wired’s Jennifer Conrad and Will Knight . Stanford University’s Digichina experts Helen Toner, Rogier Creemers and Paul Triolo discuss China’s new regulation in detail, which includes regulation of recommendation algorithms which increase consumer rights on the control of recommendation tags, protections of the elderly to include mitigations of fraudulent internet scams, protections for “gig workers” and limitations on using personal user data to affect the price of goods and services. This regulation covers a wide range of businesses from e-commerce to social media platforms to streaming services.
Many current and former U.S. officials are calling for the US Congress to regulate social media and internet platforms. Requested provisions include government oversight of these technologies; increasing privacy protections and consumer rights and funding and government oversight of research into the effects of social media use. Included in this list of individuals: President Joseph Biden, President Barak Obama, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Senator Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Senator Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), Senator Shelly Caputo (R-WV), Senator Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), Senator John Thune (R-SD), Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), and Senator John Hickenlooper (D-CO).
As noted in The Hill, a survey conducted in November 2021 by Data for Progress of over 1,200 U.S. voters nationally found that 56 percent of respondents indicated that the federal government should do more to:
“regulate social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, to stop behavior that incites violence or endangers minors’ mental and physical health.”
Are you a part of the Exhausted Majority? Now is the time to power up. Our country needs internet regulations like those being enacted in the EU.
Contact your U.S. federal elected officials:
and ask them to pass legislation regulating social media and internet platforms.
Feeling alone? Below is a list of organizations advocating for social media and internet platform regulations:
- Accountable Tech
- Berkeley Media Studies Group
- Brave Movement: End Childhood Sexual Violence
- Center for Digital Democracy
- American Academy of Pediatrics
- American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
- American Psychological Association
- Becca Schmill Foundation
- Center for Humane Technology
- Center for Online Safety
- Center for Science in the Public Interest
- Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development
- ChildFund International
- Coalition for Healthy School Food
- Common Sense
- Consumer Action
- Consumer Federation of America
- Consumer Federation of California
- Darkness to Light
- Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)
- Enough is Enough
- Exposure Labs, creators of The Social Dilemma
- Friends of the Earth
- Global Hope 365
- Holistic Moms Network
- Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility (ICCR)
- Juggernaut Project
- Keep Kids Safe
- Log Off Movement
- Lynn’s Warriors
- Massachusetts Parent-Teacher Association
- Me2B Alliance
- Media Education Foundation
- Mental Health America
- National Alliance to Advance Adolescent Health
- National Alliance for Eating Disorders
- National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners
- National Center on Sexual Exploitation
- National Eating Disorders Association
- Network for Public Education
- Parent Coalition for Student Privacy
- Parents Television and Media Council
- Peace Educators Allied for Children Everywhere, Inc.
- The Praxis Project
- Project HEAL
- Protect Young Eyes
- Public Citizen
- Public Good Law Center
- REDC Consortium
- 5 Rights Foundation
- SNAP Network
- Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine
- Stop Predatory Gambling and the Campaign for Gambling-Free Kids
- Tech Oversight Project
- Tech Transparency Project
- Turning Life On
- UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Health
- U.S. PRIG
- Youth Villages
Social Media Harms provides a listing of peer-reviewed studies, scholarly books, and articles from authoritative sources that document the negative effects of social media use. The site also lists links to organizations dedicated to reducing the harms created by social media platforms and other online services. We do not solicit donations, however, we are asking for additions to our lists of peer reviewed studies and authoritative books and articles.