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Cheri Bustos is a former Democratic congresswoman from Illinois. Reid Ribble is a former Republican congressman from Wisconsin. Both are members of Issue One’s Council for Responsible Social Media. They wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.
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Technology has transformed the way we live, the way we communicate with one another and the way we relate to the world around us. It has also deepened the political and cultural divisions so prevalent in society today, but Americans are united on at least one point: Most people agree that social media is a social ill.
A recent poll undertaken by the nonpartisan democracy-focused group Citizen Data found strong bipartisan evidence of this sentiment. Regardless of political party, the vast majority of Americans believe social media are toxic to our children and our democracy.
It’s past time for legislators to pass social media reforms that increase transparency, ensure privacy and protect children. Waiting to act — or failing to act at all — will carry a steep cost, one that will be paid by our children, by our fractured democracy and by our national security.
The social media business model is simple: Trade Americans’ data for dollars. That has led companies to exploit our children’s anxiety and obliterate their attention spans by keeping them online as long as possible. By that metric, these companies are succeeding: According to the Pew Research Center, 16% of teens use social media “almost constantly” during the day, and Common Sense, another nonprofit research group, reports that 1 in 3 wake up to check their phones at least once at night.
Social media has been ubiquitous among teens for more than a decade, but the dire state of young people’s mental health is only just coming into focus. Earlier this year, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report revealed that in 2021, 40% of high school students felt so sad or hopeless that they were unable to engage in regular activities for at least two weeks that year. Nearly 20% made a suicide plan.
Every year, social media companies spend tens of millions of dollars to convince lawmakers of their innocence in these matters. But this is a bargain for them. The $19 million that Meta spent on lobbying last year is chump change next to its $100 billion in ad revenue. And despite the platforms’ well-funded campaign of denial, evidence is mounting that there is a causal link between social media use and poor mental health. Even the tech companies themselves admit it within the safety of their sprawling campuses.
If teens are losing sleep over social media, so are parents. That recent poll, conducted on behalf of Issue One’s Council for Responsible Social Media, indicates that public concern about social media is driven by worries about children. Eight in 10 Americans hold social media responsible for childhood mental health issues such as bullying, eating disorders, depression and anxiety.
There is equal consensus about the dangers to our democracy. Nearly 80% of Americans hold social media platforms responsible for political extremism. We were both in Congress during the rise of social media and, along with it, the astonishing surge of conspiracy theories. To save our democracy for future generations, we’ll need prevention, not just treatment.
Social media also threatens our security. Just weeks ago, dozens of classified military documents were shared widely via online forums, and the FBI has warned that the Chinese government could use TikTok to access Americans’ most personal information and manipulate public opinion. If we don’t safeguard our online systems, our children will inherit threadbare defenses against our adversaries.
We are not powerless to act. In Congress today, there are multiple bipartisan proposals that aim to defend our children, democracy and privacy from the dangers of social media. That includes the Kids Online Safety Act that U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, and Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, reintroduced this session, as well as the American Data Privacy and Protection Act and the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act.
We urge more of our former colleagues to stand up against industry pressure and pass meaningful reforms. Our organization’s poll indicates that they would be rewarded. Voters are so serious about this issue that they’d be more likely to reelect representatives who support reform.
Congress should also hold the tech industry to account. This no doubt seems a tall order — but no taller, in our view, than cracking down on the tobacco industry was in the 1990s. Back then, congressional hearings helped spur increased legal accountability, regulation and public consensus over tobacco’s harm to millions of people. The recent congressional hearing with TikTok’s CEO was a bipartisan show of force and an encouraging sign. We cannot let that momentum stall.
Like Big Tobacco, Big Tech says social media use should be a matter of personal choice. On a certain level, this makes obvious sense. But when products are designed to be addictive, when advertising is aggressive and misleading, and when the harms for young people and others are significant, we can’t be cowed by businesses peddling free-market cliches. Congress has taken on big industries before to protect Americans. It should do it again.
Our nation’s children don’t wire millions of dollars to political campaigns or unleash powerful lobbyists on Capitol Hill. But the next generation is our most important constituency. Lawmakers should have them in mind as they consider what is to be done about the scourge of social media.