Protecting Children's Mental Health in the Age of Social Media
"I have no doubt that Instagram helped kill my daughter."
Those are the gut-wrenching words of Ian Russell, whose daughter Molly tragically took her own life in 2017, just days before her 15th birthday.
Family photos show Molly outside her London home, smiling in her school uniform, her long brown hair hanging over her backpack. The youngest of three sisters, she loved riding horses and sailing. "She had so much to offer," her father told the BBC.
An ongoing inquiry has found that, in the final months of her life, Molly was consumed with tens of thousands of posts on Instagram (owned by Facebook), Twitter, and other social media sites, including shocking content that encouraged self-harm and suicide.
When I met Ian last year, he spoke openly about the pain his family has endured. As a father of four children, I cannot even begin to fathom his grief. As an advocate for families and children, I hope that one day the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter, and Google eventually find themselves on the right side of history protecting kids—instead of being on the side that hurts our children by exposing them to inappropriate content, including self-harm, violence, and misinformation. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who is hell-bent on normalizing social media addiction for the world's youth and aims to hook kids early by creating platforms like Messenger Kids and, the latest rumor, Instagram for kids under the age of 13, should ask himself this simple question:
"What if Molly Russell were my daughter?"
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and with social media, we're subjecting a generation of young people like Molly to a real-time experiment with still unknown mental health effects. A recent report by Common Sense highlights the risks, especially during the pandemic: One in four young people say they are "almost constantly" on sites like Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and YouTube (owned by Google)—up from 17 percent in our last survey three years ago. The report also confirms an alarming surge in depression among children: Nearly four in 10 teens and young adults (38%) now report symptoms of moderate to severe depression, up from 25% three years ago. Among kids in families where someone has had COVID-19, it's 51%. Among LGBTQ+ youth, it's 65%. Young people with moderate to severe depressive symptoms are nearly twice as likely as those without depression to say they use social media almost constantly, but it's also that group who is more likely to say social media makes them more anxious, lonely, and depressed.
"Social media connects you to the world, but it also has connected me to the world's problems, which have started to feel like my own," said one 16-year-old boy in our report. "I feel like I don't matter," a 14-year-old girl acknowledged. "I'm losing myself," she said.
Of course, social media isn't all bad. Many teens say that connecting online with friends and counselors has helped them cope with their isolation and loneliness during the pandemic. For many kids, TikTok dances and cat face filters have been an emotional lifeline. Our challenge, as a society, is to preserve what's good about these platforms and apps, but also take action when social media goes bad.
For their part, Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms should do much more to stop amplifying racist and extremist content and subject themselves to regular, independent audits, as recommended by the Stop Hate for Profit coalition. Companies should end—and if they don't, Congress should ban—manipulative design features like autoplay, push alerts, and badges that encourage compulsive viewing and amplify the types of content that can cause the most harm.
Most importantly, it's time to hold Big Tech accountable for the harms they cause. Galvanized by the death of Molly Russell, the U.K. plans to establish a "duty of care" and impose heavy fines on tech companies that fail to uphold it. Legislation introduced in Congress would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act so that, among other reforms, families could sue social media companies that may have directly contributed to a loss of life.
Social media has been a vital tool to help our young people stay connected to friends, family, school, and health care support during the pandemic. That makes it more important than ever to ensure these spaces are safe and healthy, and the industry needs to be held accountable to that standard.
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