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Social Media Is Doing More Harm Than Good

Congress is facing a watershed opportunity to change the trajectory of social media for our kids.

Much like Big Tobacco, Big Tech has realized that addicting kids -- whose brains and identities are still developing -- produces astronomical profits. For that reason, social media platforms are designed to exploit kids' and teens' attention and extract their data for the sake of advertising.

And it's working: For example, from Jan. 1 to Sept. 30 of this year, Facebook made $82.3 billion from advertising. During the same period, YouTube made $20.2 billion from advertising.

Keeping kids engaged and addicted is driving how these organizations design their platforms, and without regulation to change things, they will continue to do so. How does profit-driven, addictive design impact kids and teens? We have compiled a list of the ways in which social media's profit-driven, addictive design can harm kids and teens.

Design features such as emoji reactions and comments, autoplay and infinite scroll, push notifications, ephemeral content, and "beautifying" filters keep kids clicking, but they can also provoke social comparison, addiction, social pressure, fear of missing out, body image issues, and more.

The consequences of these design choices are tangible to students. We spoke with several high school students from the Washington Urban Debate League and the Boston Debate League, who recently debated the topic of social media regulation.

"The 'views' and 'like' features have got to be some of the worst features that were added to social media platforms," said Richemie Chery, a high school student from Massachusetts. "It's a two-edged sword kind of thing, where if you get a lot of likes, then 'Yay,' you look relevant, but then if you don't get a lot of likes and/or views, it can completely crush one's confidence. Especially knowing that you're not the only one who's able to see it."

Kids also understand the addictive intent of autoplay and infinite scroll.

"One of the challenges I face with social media is getting off it," said KesUranNu Baylor, a high school student from Maryland. "Once I get on, I have to really force myself off it because it's so addictive. All I'm doing is scrolling, but I'm subconsciously looking for an end so I can feel accomplished. But the scrolling never stops."

Recommendation algorithms, designed to hold attention at all costs, are uniquely insidious and exploitative.

For example, Facebook intentionally chose to prioritize hateful, divisive, sensationalist content over neutral and positive content in order to increase engagement. Algorithms recommend extremist and conspiratorial content on YouTube and TikTok, sending users down radicalizing rabbit holes. Instagram's algorithms amplify content that promotes social comparison, body dissatisfaction, decreased self-esteem, depressive symptoms, and anxiety around the pressure to look perfect, particularly among girls and young women. Instagram's algorithms also recommend self-harm to unsuspecting users, resulting in replication of the harm techniques shown.

These algorithms have also facilitated the rise of social media influencers -- a glamorized and seemingly attainable path to wealth and fame through the production of content. The potential to become influential incentivizes increased use of social media, which also increases platform revenue.

"The feature that I think makes social media worse is the fact that regular everyday people can be social media influencers and influence any and everyone's life," said Xyra Mercer, a high school student from Massachusetts. "The fact that this can be displayed with a blue check and title of 'public figure' under their name puts them on a pedestal. That makes little kids or young students with impressionable minds look up to them and think, 'I want to be like them,' which is a toxic mindset."

The social media platforms are aware that their design choices encourage addiction and harm kids, but they answer only to profit. If platforms are left unregulated, our children will suffer unimaginable long-term consequences. Given that kids experience these harms en masse, by the hundreds of millions, the consequences of exploitative social media will profoundly shape the future of our society.

Congress is facing a watershed opportunity to make the internet healthier for kids and everyone else. And it is encouraging to see increased bipartisan activity in Congress to hold Big Tech accountable. Congressional leaders have proposed multiple pieces of legislation to advance everything from Section 230 reform to improved child data privacy laws and and measures that could end or significantly curb manipulative marketing and design.

Social media companies will not reform themselves -- they need incentives beyond their business models. We cannot, in good conscience, allow the continued online exploitation of children.

Katie Joseff
Katie Joseff is the misinformation and disinformation specialist at Common Sense. Her work focuses on platform accountability.