Around two hundred school boards are suing social media companies Meta, Snapchat, Google, and ByteDance for alleged student harm in the latest wave of criticism directed at Big Tech. Protecting students is a praiseworthy goal; however, this action is based on flawed assumptions about the effects of social media and fails to consider the best practices for protecting youth online.
The lawsuit is the latest in a series of efforts to address claims of harm to children by social media. So far, these have included mostly state-based bills that create more stringent requirements for social media companies to verify age such as the new law in Arkansas. Others go further, such as the law in Utah that prohibit minors from accessing social media during certain hours.
The suing school boards are claiming that social media companies have maximized engagement through addictive design choices to collect data. In turn, the addictive nature of the platforms has contributed to the rise in mental illness among young people by exposing them to harmful content and led to increased cyberbullying and disruptions in the classroom.
The lawsuit’s targeted companies are seeking dismissal due to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Under Section 230, platforms are protected from liability regarding third-party speech. However, the plaintiffs attempt to skirt this protection by arguing that social media constitutes a product rather than a platform and is therefore not covered by Section 230.
The lawsuit argues that social media has been categorically bad for young people, but recent research shows the impact is not as straightforward as critics allege. The American Psychological Association (APA) released a health advisory report on minors’ use of social media in May 2023. The APA findings suggest that social media is not inherently bad or good for young people and that the impact depends on the person in question. For example, in times of social isolation, like during the Covid-19 lockdowns, social media can facilitate connecting with peer groups and be a positive experience.
The APA argues that parental involvement is an important factor in helping children and teens develop internet literacy. In addition, the APA provides recommendations to platforms to better stop children from seeing inappropriate content and protect their privacy. These include improved reporting functions for problematic content as well as explicit notifications to young users who use features to engage with content, an example being ‘liking’ a post, to explain what data is being collected.
Maryville University has also published detailed guidelines on how to introduce children to social media and other entertainment technology based on age. It recommends specific games and apps to parents for each age group as well as guidelines for how to use parental controls and encourage healthy use of social media by teenagers and additional reading. Social media, like any technology, has the potential for benefits as well as for harm, it depends on how it is used. Current research calls for guidance to help minimize harm and gain social benefits.
Support for the lawsuit and legislative measures against social media companies are driven in part by parental concern. Luckily there are already tools for parents to help moderate and control their children’s use. Companies like Meta, offer options to allow parents to monitor teens’ Messenger app and Instagram and has worked to address shortcomings in their systems.
Social media is a growing part of modern life, and its use can be tailored to ensure a healthy experience. Rather than painting social platforms as uniformly harmful, the available evidence suggests a more complex situation where there are potential benefits in addition to risks. Tools currently exist for parents and users to control their experience to maximize the positive benefits, legal interventions are duplicative.
Trey Price is a technology policy analyst for the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit education and research organization. For more information, visit https://www.theamericanconsumer.org/ or follow us on Twitter @ConsumerPal.