Last week, 33 US states launched a federal lawsuit against Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram. Another nine states launched similar suits in state courts.
The federal lawsuit claims Meta used “psychologically manipulative product features” on its social media platforms to “induce young users’ compulsive and extended platform use.” It claims Meta did this while “falsely assuring the public that its features were safe and suitable for young users.”
In short, they’re arguing Facebook and Instagram are both addictive and bad for kids.
Ottawa and the provinces would do well to take note. The harms that the US states are seeking to address are ones that Canada ought to be tackling as well.
There is mounting evidence that Meta’s platforms — and possibly other social media platforms as well — are harmful to young people.
Jonathan Haidt, a New York University professor and psychologist best known for his book The Coddling of the American Mind, is a leading researcher in this area. He has published numerous studies tracking the sharp escalation in health problems in youth since social media platforms became ubiquitous around 2010.
Major depression, incidents of self-inflicted injuries, loneliness have all spiked.
“The link between social media use and mental illness varies by age and sex,” Haidt said in testimony to the US Senate Judiciary Committee in 2022. “For girls, it is largest between the ages of 11 and 13 — the years when they are in early puberty.”
“The patterns are nearly identical in the UK and Canada,” he said.
In May of this year, the US Surgeon General, the country’s top medical officer, issued an advisory warning of the “ample indicators” that social media poses a “risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”
The advisory points to research that shows adolescents who spend more than three hours per day on social media “face double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes, such as symptoms of depression and anxiety.” They can also experience disordered eating behaviours, social comparison and low self-esteem.
Of course, social media has benefits as well. The magic of social media is that you can connect with anyone, anywhere and easily remain in contact for decades. You can discover information that you would never otherwise find. You can promote a cause or business and make money and even careers off of it, as many young people now do.
Social media thus falls in the same camp as other products that have both benefits and ills. Alcohol and cannabis come to mind.
The government should take a similar approach to regulating social media as it does to these substances: age-gate them.
It should place an onus on platforms to not permit children below a certain age, perhaps 13, to create social media accounts at all. To make this measure meaningful, social media platforms will need to face serious consequences for failing to enforce them. By acting, Canada would join countries as diverse as the UK and China in taking steps to limit young people’s activity on social media and platforms’ use of their data.
Yes, some kids will find ways to circumvent the rules. Perhaps they’ll log in using the accounts of parents or siblings, or use fake IDs to set up accounts.
But this possibility does not undermine the case for age-gating in the first place. No different than how we do not contemplate getting rid of age limits for alcohol purchases when teenagers find ways to buy beer.
A second, more complex requirement would be to require social media platforms to limit the amount of time that teenagers can spend on any one platform in a day.
The amount of time is significant because, as Haidt noted in his Senate testimony, “as usage rises to three or four hours a day, the increases in mental illness often become quite sharp.” A 2021 US survey found that, on average, teenagers spend 3.5 hours a day on social media.
If anyone can figure out how to implement time limits on social media usage, it’s social media platforms, which have vast resources and data capabilities.
Parents and educators too often feel helpless to limit kids’ social media use. They fear being the only one to limit a child’s time on a platform, thereby depriving them of access to a popular social arena. But all children would benefit from these limits.
This is a classic collective action problem that requires an outside party with a big stick. In short, the government.
Ottawa, we know, is not afraid to take on big tech. In recent years, it has passed both the Online Streaming Act and Online News Act. Unfortunately, though, it picked the wrong fights.
With social media, the harms are clear. This is an area where the government must act.