Biden warned of ‘social media harm’ on children’s mental health in his State of the Union address

President Joe Biden believes America, and especially its young people, are experiencing a mental health crisis — and according to his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, social media is one of the root causes.

In his speech, Biden promised to “hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they conduct on our children for profit.” To make his point, he referenced a special guest in the audience, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen, who shared internal company documents with the press and Congress last fall. which showed that Facebook had publicly downplayed its own research that found a link between its products and mental health issues in some teens. One of the downplayed studies found that Instagram worsened body image issues in one in three teenage girls.

“It’s time to strengthen privacy protections, to ban targeted advertising to children, to demand that tech companies stop collecting personal data about our children,” Biden said.

The president’s mentions on social media show how regulating the tech industry is a real priority for his administration, at a time when nearly 70% of Americans think tech companies wield too much power and 56% think that increased government regulation is needed. Biden has been more supportive of tech reform than some initially expected — including appointing Big Tech critics to key leadership positions, like Tim Wu at the White House and Lina Khan at the Federal Trade Commission. But Wednesday’s speech marked one of the first times Biden described how he wants to curb the power of technology. To do this, he focused on a popular topic – protecting teens and children online – which is of concern to politicians on both sides of the aisle. It should be noted that this is a narrower focus than the broader bipartisan calls to break up some tech companies under antitrust laws or to regulate how social media companies handle moderation of content on their platforms.

“This is really the first time that Biden has come out and made a major political statement about [social media]Jim Steyer, CEO and founder of the nonprofit Common Sense Media, which promotes the safe use of technology for children, told Recode. “And I think the fact that he’s framing it through the lens of kids, teens, and families is great.”

Biden’s remarks about the harms of social media were mentioned as part of his agenda to address what he calls the country’s mental health crisis. Rates of depression have long been rising in the United States, and during the pandemic, those rates have risen dramatically. About two in five American adults and 56% of young adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression during the pandemic, according to a study last year by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Biden’s argument, which he expanded on in a fact sheet released ahead of his Wednesday speech, is that social media companies are contributing to this problem, especially among teens.

The president did not name specific companies in his speech. But social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok and other apps have all come under criticism from some researchers, children’s rights advocates and lawmakers who say these products can addictive, may promote harmful and inaccurate information, and may enable harassment and exploitation.

To address this problem, Biden called on Congress to strengthen privacy protections, ban targeted advertising and the collection of personal data about children, design their products to be less “addictive” and fund more research in the field, according to his speech and his projects.

While we still don’t know exactly how much of an impact social media has on teen mental health and whether the positive effects may outweigh the negative ones, some research — including Instagram’s internal report that Haugen disclosed – showed how social media can reinforce negative emotions such as suicide. thoughts, especially in adolescents struggling with these mental health issues.

Haugen’s congressional testimony on the issue last year was well received by politicians on both sides of the aisle, with senators like Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) applauding Haugen for exposing the tech industry’s perceived failure to protect young people.

There are currently several bipartisan bills in Congress to initiate the kind of reforms Biden wants, including an update to the Children and Teens Online Privacy Protection Act proposed by Sens. Ed. Markey (D-MA) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA), and the Kids Online Safety Act by Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).

In addition to calling for regulation, Biden will also allocate at least $5 million of his 2023 budget to advancing research into the harms of social media and how to address these issues. He will also direct the Department of Health and Human Services to launch a National Center of Excellence on Social Media and Mental Wellness that will create and share guidance on the subject, according to a White House fact sheet. published Tuesday before the speech. .

Biden’s choice to focus on social media in his mental health plan is one area where he could likely see bipartisan support. Other areas of technology policy, such as content moderation, are much more controversial. Indeed, Democrats have called on tech companies to remove more misinformation they consider harmful to democracy, and many Republicans say tech companies are already removing too much content, for what they say is politically biased reasons. Helping to protect children from the mental harms of social media is something liberals and conservatives can find more common ground on, so it makes sense that Biden would focus his efforts here.

While there are no clear solutions agreed upon by Congress just yet, this is perhaps one of the most likely areas where we could see tech reform in the near future.

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