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Every day, there seems to be mounting evidence that social media usage is harming teens and young children. Social media has now been blamed for everything from mental health issues to cyberbullying, substance abuse, and teenage suicide. And, yet, the big social media players continue to turn a blind eye to all of it. When they are dragged in front of Congress, they promise to change things, but nothing ever seems to change.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that a handful of brave whistleblowers are standing up, and telling lawmakers exactly what’s happening behind the scenes in Silicon Valley. In many cases, they have email messages, documents, or other proof that the top executives at the biggest social media platforms know exactly what’s going on, but are hesitant to act because doing so might destroy their very profitable business model. And, in some cases, say whistleblowers, they are actually “cooking the books” and altering the results of surveys and experiments, just so that they can pretend that everything’s OK. Except it’s not.
The parallels with Big Tobacco
Sound familiar? A growing number of people are now comparing Big Tech to Big Tobacco. In both cases, there are huge, powerful, multinational companies that have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. They are deliberately peddling a product they know harms people, and making a lot of money in the process. And, when confronted by scientists and whistleblowers, they continue to obfuscate the matter. And when all else fails, they turn to very powerful lobbyists and lawyers, who can help them circumvent the law and various regulations.
So the writing might be on the wall for Big Tech. They’ve had so many chances to fix things. They’ve had so much data showing that teens are getting harmed by using social media. Now it might be time to force them to change. The latest whistleblower, a former Facebook engineer, has released some very damning details. He says that 25% of teens in the 13-to-15 age category are getting unwanted sexual advances online. And he says that 1 in 4 users under the age of 16 have had a “bad experience” on Instagram related to race, religion, or sexual identity.
What happens next?
Of course, we will have to see if the latest whistleblower testimony, delivered in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is actually going to have an impact. We’ve seen this story before. There’s shock, then outrage, then a promise to draft new legislation to prevent this from ever happening again. Then, there’s a long wait, and nothing seems to happen. Sometimes, legislation dies in committee and never gets voted on. Sometimes industry lobbyists are able to weaken any support from legislators, and a promising piece of legislation fails to pass with a vote. And sometimes a bill never even gets drafted in the first place.
The best chance going forward is something known as the Kids Online Safety Act. It has bipartisan support from both parties, and it is supporting some common sense steps that social media companies should be taking to protect kids. Senators are vowing to take action, and they are invoking the example of Big Tobacco to show that they mean business. Let’s hope this works this time around.
At the end of the day, just about everyone agrees that young teens shouldn’t be propositioned on social media. Young kids shouldn’t be made to feel bad about their appearance, their nationality, their religion, or their sexual identity. And they shouldn’t be forced to endure online content that leads to destructive behavior, including substance abuse and self-harm. If Big Tech won’t admit this and take action on their own, then let’s hope that Washington forces them to change once and for all.