Original illustration by Julie Wallace

By Haven Hamre-Myers, age 15 and IndyKids staff

The reckoning on how social media is impacting kids’ mental health has begun. Facebook, and Mark Zuckerberg personally, have been called out for knowing about the issues surrounding their platforms and for their failure to take action.

Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager, leaked information showing that the company, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, is aware of the harm their platforms have on children. Haugen, at the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection in Oct. 2021, explained how Facebook ultimately has the ability to make their platforms safer, but chooses not to “because they have put their astronomical profits before people.”

Over the past few years mental health issues for teenagers have seen an enormous increase. The rate of teen depression rose by more than 60% between 2011 and 2018, according to the CDC National Youth Risk Behavior Survey. A 2019 study conducted by Common Sense Media Census found that spending more than four hours a day online significantly increases hyperactivity and inattentiveness and decreases feelings of self-worth. They also found that a large percentage of teens spend more than seven hours per day online.

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Melissa Hunt, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, explained to NPR that Facebook makes money off of interactions and engagement on their apps. She said that Facebook is motivated to create algorithms that keep people using their platforms, even if they negatively affect their long-term well-being. Facebook targets young people because they are more susceptible to social influence and therefore easiest to profit off of. A 2018 study by Wiley Developmental Science found that children between the ages of 8 to 18 years old were more susceptible to social influence than their elders.

When questioned by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers about children’s decreasing mental health and its connection to social media platforms, Mark Zuckerberg replied that he “doesn’t think that the research is conclusive.” However, Facebook’s internal research leaked by Haugen showed that the company was aware of how harmful their platforms are to the mental health of child users, teenage girls in particular. 

Social media might seem dangerous, and while it is in many aspects as it continues to go unregulated, it can also be beneficial. In an interview with IndyKids, Vicki Harrison, program director for the Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing at Stanford, stated, “Connecting with friends [on social media] in a balanced way can boost mental health.” However, these apps must be designed to specifically serve the best interests of young people. 

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One of the biggest changes that can be made is to hold Facebook and other social media platforms accountable. According to Harrison, apps should be required to have better age verification systems, algorithmic transparency, no targeted advertising, and default settings that favor privacy and safety. “With a more age-appropriate design, the primary goals of the platforms would be things like connection, creativity, support, wellbeing and fun,” said Harrison, “and not fall secondary to the advertising interests currently driving behavior on the sites.”

Facebook could incorporate all of these regulations and still be extremely profitable. However, Haugen urges that social media needs to receive similar levels of government regulation to the likes of cigarettes and cars, as it clearly poses a big threat to public safety. “Congressional action is needed,” Haugen said of Facebook. “They won’t solve this crisis without your help.”

Glossary

Reckoning: The time when actions are judged as good or bad
Algorithm: A technical way of sorting posts based on how likely you are to look at them
Susceptible: Likely to be influenced or harmed by a particular thing
Conclusive: Evidence shows that something is certainly true
Unregulated: Not controlled or supervised by regulations or laws
Transparency: Operating in a way that makes it easy for people to see what you’re doing