Social media is harming our children

By Matthew Gagnon

On Wednesday, a group of executives from major social media companies made their way to Capitol Hill to once again testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The purpose of their appearance was to answer questions about their platforms, and what they were doing to protect children on them. 

The hearing is, of course, a bit of political theater as all congressional hearings are. Each member of Congress on the committee went into this hearing hoping for a chance to become a star in much the same way that U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik did last month during the hearings on antisemitism in academia. That hearing propelled her into a leading position to become Donald Trump’s nominee for vice president

Despite their less than pure intentions, the subject of the hearing is very much worth public attention, and social media companies do have some very uncomfortable questions to answer. 

Social media has done a lot to society in a very short amount of time. It has had positive effects, like connecting people across the world with people they never would have been able to meet before, or helping to facilitate connection and communication for positive political or social change. People are now able to access and share things they never would’ve seen before, enriching and informing us like never before. 

It has also had obviously negative effects as well, like an undeniable coarsening of our national political dialogue, spreading and metastisizing misinformation, and giving easy options for bad actors to engage in criminal behavior, like cyberstalking or sex trafficking

One of the most troubling negative effects, though, has been on our children. 

Every parent of a sufficiently old child has anecdotally experienced and witnessed this. Use of technology and screens is always a battle and clearly influences the mood and attention span of young people. Social media, though, is a different animal. It can weaponize the naivete and lack of experience in children, and the impersonal, distant nature of the medium cultivates envy, promotes unrealistic ideas of people and relationships, and gives fuel to negativity and meanness.

It isn’t just anecdotal, though. 

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, has been talking about his observations about young people and social media for years, and is coming out with a new book this March, “The Anxious Generation,” which examines the links between social media and the unbelievable rise in anxiety among America’s youth. 

What is happening, specifically? According to findings Haidt shared in an unpublished manuscript the rates of major depressive episodes have spiked radically among adolescents, rising 63 percent from 2009 through 2017, which is an important period because it covers a time before the COVID-19 pandemic, which many people have blamed for recent rises in depression and anxiety. Rates of serious psychological distress and suicide-related outcomes for young adults are also up by 71 percent in the same period. Notably, in both cases the increases of these types of disorders were present, but much weaker and lower, showing us that young people are experiencing these problems much more severely. 

Even more concerning is that the increase is not being experienced equally among boys and girls. These rates are going up for all young people, but girls are experiencing these issues a great deal more. Worse, the female-oriented increase is perhaps the highest in the worst outcomes, like “self-harm.”

Haidt is not the only one to notice this or talk about it of course. The trends in declined mental well being are so apparent that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains their own statistics on this phenomenon, and has been ringing the bell on what is happening to girls in particular for some time.

These trends are undeniable, but the cause is in dispute. Haidt points the finger at social media, and backs up his claims with a long list of academic literature and studies that show evidence for the negative psychological consequences of using social media. Others, though, are not so sure and call into question the argument he makes

Either way, one thing is certain: Humanity has had only a handful of years of experience with this technology, and clearly it comes with negatives for individuals and for society that we have not fully grappled with, and that many of those negatives are worse for kids than for adults. I don’t know many people who challenge those general points.

But remember, social media companies are not going to protect your kids for you, and neither is Congress. Dealing with this ticking time bomb in your child’s pocket is, first and foremost up to us, and your best weapon in this battle is attention and awareness. Arm yourself.

Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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