Twenty years ago, the social network called MySpace went online and changed the world. Facebook soon eclipsed the market, other players entered, and today more than 4.5 billion people use some form of social media. With that comes the debate over the good versus harm it’s done to a generation, and whether and how to regulate it. Lisa Fletcher reports.
Lauren Williams is a Washington, D.C. high school senior. For years she struggled with anxiety and panic attacks, often amplified by what she was experiencing on social media.
Lauren Williams: Like, there are times when I get really anxious on social media and then wan to take a break, but then I get more anxious because I feel like I'm missing out. Or there are things on social media that are going on that I'm not able to see, and that causes even more anxiety and makes me want to go back into, I guess, a toxic space.
Recent studies have found that young adults who use social media are three times as likely to suffer from depression, putting them at higher risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
Lisa: What are some of the glaring negatives of social media that trigger your anxiety or panic attacks?
Williams: You feel like you want to post everything you're thinking online. We're such an influential generation on each other that we, you know, we can get inspired by each other. But then sometimes we compare. And that causes a lot of anxiety for me too, feeling like I'm not looking like the pages that I like on Instagram or even my friends who I see in person.
Turns out, Facebook did an internal study on how its photo-sharing app, Instagram, affected its young users and found problems. A whistleblower exposed evidence that the company found sizable mental health impacts, especially among teenage girls. The company’s share price fell after that whistleblower, Frances Haugen, testified before Congress. Meta, its parent company, now facing a class action lawsuit from angry investors.
Dr. Mary Alvord is a psychologist in Maryland. She’s been treating patients for four decades and specializes in helping kids and teens.
Lisa: What is it about social media interaction with young people that brings that angst to a clinical level?
Mary Alvord: I think it's the immediacy, and also, you are behind the scene in a sense. So you might say something that is mean, maybe inappropriate, and you don't have to actually face the person. So that's one thing that we've observed is that there's a barrier that they see as protection, and so they might, you know, not be as kind as they would in person.
Lawmakers in Washington have been railing at Big Tech and worrying about social media for years. But when it comes to action, they’ve done almost nothing, meaning the social media companies are still governed by rules created back in 1996. Under something called Section 230, sites like Twitter and Facebook aren’t responsible for most of what users post.
But cases now being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court seek to challenge those protections — one, brought by the family of an American college student killed in a terror attack in Paris, who wants to sue Google over YouTube’s recommendation algorithm they say helped extremists spread their message.
Frustrated by inaction at the national level, many states are stepping up.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox: To the social media companies who have been reckless in protecting our youth, Utah parents are putting you on notice.
Utah Governor Spencer Cox says he’ll sign any bill that holds social media companies accountable. Currently, the legislature is considering a law to prevent minors from creating social media accounts without parental consent.
Cox: I suspect that 10 years from now, we’ll look back on this the way we look back on opioids, the way we look back on tobacco use, and just say, "What were we thinking? I can’t believe we did this to our kids."
Lisa: Why do you think we're seeing so much more regulatory activity at the state level?
Scott Babwah Brennen: States have realized that they can kind of step up and take the lead here, and so there's a real appetite, I think, for new regulations.
Dr. Scott Babwah Brennen studies public policy for technology and the internet at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Lisa: Is it a failure at the federal level that there hasn't been a national standard created?
Babwah Brennen: It depends on who you ask. Even amongst lawmakers at the state level who are supporting state, for example, privacy comprehensive legislation, some suggest that it would be preferable to have a national standard.
But one of the key findings of his research is that in writing new rules for the internet, states are pulling in different directions. Florida, Texas, and other Republican-led states have proposed or passed laws they say protect free speech by limiting Big Tech’s ability to remove content. While Democrat-run New York and California have pushed platforms to make it easier to report what they deem to be hate or false speech.
Babwah Brennen: The right wants there to be less moderation, the left wants there to be more moderation, and both are now looking in different ways to the government to impose rules that force platforms to do less or that force platforms to do more.
Meaning we could soon see a different social media experience, depending on where we live, with new restrictions and rules.
Lisa: Do you worry that freedom of speech is eventually going to be impacted as part of the effort to protect particularly younger people?
Williams: I do because social media, even though it feels like it's so big right now, it's still growing rapidly, and if we keep up the rate we're going now, people might not be able to share anything online, and they might not feel comfortable. And that kind of makes me sad because a lot of young people find their communities online and find like-minded individuals.
As social media approaches its 20th birthday, it's facing its own growing pains. Seemingly everyone agrees there needs to be change, but little consensus about what the change should be.
Sharyl: So what's the impact if states are passing individual laws and the federal government's not doing anything?
Lisa: Well experts tell us it could mean that individual phones are going to have to have special software that restricts usage where kids are restricted for certain uses on their phone. It basically means we're headed toward a much more regulated use of social media on phones.
Sharyl: Ok, thank you. Very interesting.