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A Senate committee is widening its investigation into the impact social media platforms have on children, teens and young adults, with more apps facing congressional scrutiny. William Brangham reports with Jean Twenge, a psychology professor and author of "iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood."
A Senate committee is widening its investigation into the impact social media platforms have on children, teens and young adults, with more apps facing congressional scrutiny.
William Brangham has our coverage, beginning with this report.
And a warning:
This story contains sensitive subject matter, including discussion of suicide.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN):
I don't think parents are going to stand by while our kids and democracy become collateral damage to a profit game.
On Capitol Hill, executives from YouTube, Snapchat, and TikTok were grilled by lawmakers on what these wildly popular platforms are doing to protect children online, and exactly what kinds of material kids are able to access.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN):
Kids as young as 9 have died doing viral challenges on TikTok.
Today marks the first time representatives from TikTok and Snapchat have appeared before Congress. Among the many issues lawmakers asked about, how to prevent dealers selling counterfeit pills and illegal substances to young people.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar:
If a kid had just walked into, say, a pharmacy, he wouldn't be able to buy that or get that.
Jennifer Stout, Vice President of Global Public Policy, Snapchat: Senator, it's not just happening on our platform. It's happening on others. So, therefore, we need to work collectively
I think there's other ways to do this too, as creating liability when this happens, so maybe that will make you work even faster, so we don't lose another kid.
For much of the hearing, lawmakers pushed the executives to further limit certain features available to kids, such as autoplay of videos, targeted ad content, and the like and dislike buttons, which can keep children online longer, and potentially expose them to bullying.
Executives stressed they have systems in place to flag harmful content and illegal activity, and that efforts to combat misinformation have been expanded. The executives also pledged to share more data and research on how their platforms impact teens and young adults, but they often fell short of pledging their full support for a number of bills already introduced.
And lawmakers continued their calls for more transparency.
Sen. John Thune (R-SD):
What's your response to the Wall Street Journal article that describes in detail how TikTok's algorithm serves up sex and drug videos to minors?
Michael Beckerman, Head of Public Policy For the Americas, TikTok: We disagree with that being an authentic experience that an actual user would have.
Another point of contention was how these platforms can ensure that children only see content that's appropriate for their age.
The content that appears on Snapchat is appropriate for the age group of 13 and above.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT):
I beg to differ. I had my staff create a Snapchat account for a 13-year-old — for a 15-year-old child.
They were immediately bombarded with content that I can most politely describe as wildly inappropriate for a child, including recommendations for, among other things, an invite to play an online sexualized video game and articles about porn stars.
Any online sexual video game should be age-gated to 18 and above, so I'm unclear why that content would've shown up.
Lawmakers sought clarity on how these companies police content that poses serious risks to users.
Leslie Miller, Youtube We heavily invest in making sure that all of our users, but particularly kids on the platform, have a safe experience.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn:
I'm quoting from searches that we have done: Songs to slit your wrists by, vertical slit wrist.
Do the self-harm and suicide videos violate YouTube's content guidelines?
Senator, I would certainly welcome following up with you on the video you may be referencing.
Legislators also wanted to know what data was being collected about children by these platforms.
TikTok actually collects less in many categories than many of our peers.
Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY):
Which of your competitors or other companies that you're aware of collect more information?
Facebook and Instagram, for example.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT):
Being different from Facebook is not a defense. That bar is in the gutter.
While the companies tried to separate themselves from each other, lawmakers from both sides agreed more action is needed to ensure kids are safe online.
For more on how these platforms are affecting kids' mental health, we turn to Jean Twenge. She is a professor of psychology and the author of "iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood."
Jean Twenge, great to have you back on the "NewsHour."
So, as we heard today, a lot of concern on Capitol Hill expressed about the potential for these platforms to be causing harm to young people.
What do we know about the actual research as to whether or not these things do cause harm?
Jean Twenge, Author, "iGen": Yes, so, generally speaking, the more time a kid or a teen spends in front of a screen, the more likely they are to be depressed, anxious, to harm themselves.
There's gradations to this. Watching videos isn't as strongly linked to depression as, say, being on social media. But especially when kids and teens spend a lot of time online, it leaves less time for sleep, it leaves less time for interacting with people face to face, leaves less time for running around outside and exercising.
And so, perhaps, as a result, what we have seen is a huge increase in teen depression right at the time that these platforms became very popular.
So, do you feel that that — is this causal or is this a correlation? I mean, do you feel confident that it's these platforms themselves or simply, as you're describing, sort of opportunity cost, that if you have got a screen in front of your face, you're not doing all these other things that we know are healthier for kids?
Yes. So, yes, this is complex. There's many, many issues at stake here.
So, one is that time spent, that, especially when it gets excessive to four, five, six, seven, eight hours a day, then it crowds out time for things that are more beneficial. Then there's the question of content, which was discussed a lot today, that there's a lot of negative content that kids get exposed to on these platforms.
And as to whether it's causal, that's been a really hard question to answer. There have been some studies that have, say, had college students cut back on their social media use, and they found, after three weeks, the ones who cut back on their social media use were more mentally healthy than those who continued their usual high level of use.
So that really points in the direction of at least some of that causation is going from using these platforms, especially many hours a day, toward depression and other mental health issues.
So how does this body of research translate? If I'm a parent debating what to do with my child and devices and social media, what is the current state of best advice for parents?
Parents are in a tough position.
This is one reason we need more policy and regulation in this area, because you have the fear that, if your kid doesn't use social media, then they will be left out, and if they do use social media, then there's these mental health issues, negative content, and so on.
So I think there's two important things. First, put off having your kid get social media for as long as you can. Ten is too young. It's actually the law. You need to be 13. Even 13 is pretty young to start with social media. So, try to put it off to 15 or 16 or even later.
And then the second aspect is just to make sure that they're using social media and video platforms in moderation, that it's not taking over their life, crowding out time that could be spend on other things.
If they want to spend an hour or two a day outside school on these platforms, not a big deal. It's not really linked to depression. It's when the use gets to four, five, six hours and beyond that it's much more concerning for mental health and other issues.
Really is a remarkable social experiment we're conducting right now.
Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, always good to see you. Thanks for being here.
Watch the Full Episode
William Brangham is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour in Washington, D.C. He joined the flagship PBS program in 2015, after spending two years with PBS NewsHour Weekend in New York City.
Courtney Norris is a deputy senior producer of national affairs for the NewsHour. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @courtneyknorris
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