Social Media Harms
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Social Media Harms

A Parents View — Social Media Harms

A Parent’s View: 3 Highlights from Facebook Whistleblower Senate Testimony

Senate: We Need to Help Parents Help Their Kids

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

In many ways, Frances Haugen’s testimony was no surprise. The former Facebook employee, an electrical and computer engineer (software programmer/algorithmic specialist) who was the lead product manager for Facebook’s Civil Disinformation Team and a team member of the Counter-Espionage Team, shared thousands of pages of internal Facebook research documents with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the U. S. Senate, and the Wall Street Journal. Her senate testimony related to internal Facebook research studies about teen and preteen use of Instagram that revealed negative mental health impacts. Facebook did not share this information with the public.

Recap of Facebook/Instagram internal research discussed:

  • Facebook uses Messenger Kids to identify children. Facebook used Messenger Kids to identify children who were 8 years old to participate in one of the leaked studies. Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) asked Ms. Davis at the senate hearing last week to provide a copy of the parental consent form used for this study. Ms. Davis refused to answer the question. As required by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, commercial websites and online services must obtain parental consent to collect information about children under the age of 13 years. Senator Blackburn nor the committee have received a copy of the consent form.
  • Facebook Knows that Instagram is addictive. Facebook characterized this as “problematic use” in its studies and noted that this behavior peaks at age 14. The studies released found that 5–6 percent of 14 year olds had self-identified problems with Instagram use that affected their school experience and personal relationships.
  • Facebook Knows that Instagram Makes Teen Users Insecure about their body image . Sixty-six (66) percent of teen girls say that Instagram results in negative social comparison. One in five teens say that Instagram makes them feel worse about themselves. Teens who struggle with mental health say Instagram makes them feel worse.
  • Facebook knows that children under the age of 13 use Instagram. Facebook’s Global Head of Safety, Antigone Davis, provided written testimony stating that Instagram had deleted 600,000 accounts from June-August 2021.
  • Facebook is depending upon flawed algorithms to fix its problems. Ms. Haugen stated that only 10–20 percent of hate speech is identified by Facebook’s algorithms. Facebook also relies upon algorithms to review proposed ads, allowing ads with harmful content to be published. Ms. Haugen noted that Facebook and Instagram target advertising to users 13 -18 years old based upon age, gender and location.

Parents need to be informed about social media

Parents’ teenage experiences were very different from their teens’ experiences today. Widespread teen use of smartphones did not start until 2012. Findings from the leaked research Teen Mental Health Deep Dive , concluded:

“Most teens think friends and parents should help them with the challenges they face..at the same time, parent’s can’t understand and don’t know how to help..social media has fundamentally changed the landscape of adolescence.”

What parents can do now

Engage your schools. Dr. Jean Twenge, PhD. and Jonathan Haidt, academic researchers who have been studying the harms of smartphone and social media use in adolescents for many years, recommended in the New York Times Opinion piece, This Is Our Chance to Pull Teenagers Out of the Smartphone Trap that parents ask school officials to institute regulations that prohibit student use of smartphones during school hours. The goals is to increase teen-to-teen interaction while they are under supervision of school officials — and to encourage face to face interaction with their teachers and other school employees. Before and after school, students can have their phones. Ask your school to host parent learning sessions regarding social media. If parents decide together that their children/teens may not have social media accounts, some of the social pressure to have authorized and/or fake accounts will be lessened.

Learn about social media. Many organizations publish on-line safety guides for parents. A few include:

Now is the time to write your senator and representative and ask for support of the below legislation:

  • Childrens’ and Teens’ Online Protection Act of 2021 was introduced in May 2021 by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and was referred to the Senate SCT committee for action. This legislation updates the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
  • Kids Internet Design and Safety (KIDS) Act was re-introduced by SEN Richard Blumenthal (D-MA) and SEN Ed Markey (D-MA) on September 30, 2021 in the senate, and on the same day, Congresswoman Kathy Castor (FL-14), reintroduced this legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives. The KIDS Act would prohibit online practices including amplification of harmful content, damaging design features, and deceitful marketing practices that inflict harm on young people while they are online.
  • Children and Media Research Advancement (CAMRA) Act, was introduced by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) on March 25, 2021 and was referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. This bill would amend the Public Health Service Act to authorize a program on children and the media within the National Institute of Health to study the health and developmental effects of technology on infants, children, and adolescents.

Additional legislation:

Several senators expressed the need for modification of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to include oversight and review of algorithms used in social media platforms. Many pieces of legislation have been introduced in the past two sessions of congress addressing this issue. This subject is so complex, it requires a separate blog of its own. Ms. Haugen’s written testimony calls on congress to pass legislation that would require Facebook and other technology companies to share their internal research with the public, but did not advocate specific piece of legislation.

Ms. Haugen concluded her testimony with the statement that “social media should be human-centric, not computer-centric.” She explained that to do that newsfeeds should go back to being chronological, and users decide what topics they would like to read or learn about — not have recommendations generated by an algorithm whose variables are trade secrets — not to be shared with the public.

Social Media Harms provides a listing of peer-reviewed studies, books and articles from authoritative sources that document the negative effects of social media use. The website also includes links to organizations that promote safe social media and internet use.

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