Letters were sent to the CEOs of the three largest social media companies in the United States: Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Sundar Pichai of Google and Jack Dorsey of Twitter.
On March 30, four Republican members of the House of Representatives sent letters to the chief executive officers of Facebook, Google and Twitter asking for any internal or external research on the effect their products have on children’s mental health. The lawmakers requested the social media companies provide the information by April 16.
The companies’ CEOs have been called to testify before Congress on multiple occasions over the last few years, including, most recently, a March 25 appearance before the House Energy and Commerce Committee for a hearing entitled “Disinformation Nation: Social Media’s Role in Promoting Extremism Misinformation.”
Though the letters were sent by Republicans, concerns over the effect technology and social media can have on children’s mental well-being is a bipartisan concern.
For over a decade, various Democratic Congressmembers have introduced versions of the Children and Media Research Advancement (CAMRA) Act, which would authorize a government study of the matter.
The mental health of social media users
Letters were sent to the CEOs of the three largest social media companies in the United States: Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Sundar Pichai of Google and Jack Dorsey of Twitter. Facebook, which owns Instagram, is reportedly developing a version of its popular photo-sharing app specifically for children under 13.
In the letters, the GOP lawmakers requested internal research and communication on the effect the companies’ products had on the mental health of children and adults. Specifically, the lawmakers sought the effects on differing user age groups: children 12 and younger, teenagers and adults 18 or older. They also requested research on how the products affected the risks of child exploitation and trafficking.
Additionally, the lawmakers want any external research or studies that had been or were being conducted on the same matters.
The lawmakers who sent the letters were: Republican Committee Leader for Energy and Commerce Cathy Rodgers, Republican Subcommittee Leader for Communications and Technology Bob Latta, Republican Subcommittee Leader for Consumer Protection and Commerce Gus Bilirakis and Republican Subcommittee Leader for Oversight and Investigations H. Morgan Griffith.
During the March 25 hearing that preceded the letter, Representative Rodgers, the highest ranking Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, expressed her concerns as a parent about the effects social media platforms and products have on children.
“Your platforms are my biggest fear as a parent,” Rodgers stated. “I’m a mom of three school-aged kids. My husband and I are fighting the Big Tech battles in our household every day. It’s a battle for their development, a battle for their mental health, and ultimately, a battle for their safety. I’ve monitored where your algorithms lead them. It’s frightening. I know I’m not alone.”
Some independent studies have found that social media use is linked to higher frequency of depression, sleep deprivation and body image problems among teenagers.
The CAMRA Act
Rodgers and her Republican colleagues are not alone in their concerns about the effects of social media on children’s overall health.
In 2019, Democratic Senator Edward Markey and Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin introduced complementary versions of the CAMRA Act in both chambers of Congress. The bills were co-sponsored by members of both parties.
The CAMRA Act would require “the National Institutes of Health to fund research regarding the effects of media on infants, children, and adolescents. Such research must examine the impact of media (e.g., social media, television, video games) on cognitive, physical, and social-emotional development.”
The bill stalled in the previous Congress after never advancing out of committee. So far, the bill has not been taken up again in the current Congress.
Some version of the CAMRA Act has been introduced into Congress nearly 10 times since first being introduced into the Senate in 2004 by then-Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman. Lieberman’s version, which also never made it out of committee, sought to “research priorities regarding the roles and impact of the use of and exposure to electronic media on youth in certain core areas of child development.”
Common Sense Research
Common Sense Research is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization devoted to aggregating research on the effect modern technology has on children’s physical, emotional, social and intellectual development. Their aim is to provide a fuller understanding of these issues to parents, educators, politicians and health care providers.
In 2020, the organization published their fourth “Common Sense Census,” which found that for the first time, “young kids spend more time watching online videos than doing any other activity on screens.” The report determined most videos were lacking in educational value and frequently exposed young children to violence and inappropriate content.
The census, which was completed in March prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, found that on average, children between the ages of five and eight spent just over three hours of each day in front of a screen. Children two to four averaged two and a half hours of screen time, while children under two averaged nearly 50 minutes.
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