Our children need us to implement social media reform

Technology has changed the way we live, the way we communicate with each other and the way we interact with the world around us. It’s also deepened the political and cultural divisions that dominate society today, but Americans agree on at least one thing: Most people agree that social media is a social evil.

A recent poll by the bipartisan, pro-democracy group Citizen Data found strong bipartisan evidence for this sentiment. Regardless of political party, the vast majority of Americans believe social media is toxic to our children and our democracy. Nearly 7 in 100 respondents believe that the benefits of social media outweigh the disadvantages.

As former elected officials, we can attest that a 7% approval rating is embarrassing – and a clear call to action. It’s high time lawmakers enacted social media reforms that increase transparency, ensure privacy and protect children. Waiting — or not acting at all — will have huge costs that will be borne by our children, our shattered democracy, and our national security.

The social media business model is simple: trade Americans’ data for dollars. This has led to companies taking advantage of our children’s fears and shortening their attention spans by keeping them online as long as possible. By this metric, these companies are doing well: 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 one in three gets up to check social media at least once phone at night.

Social media has been ubiquitous among teenagers for more than a decade, but the dire state of young people’s mental health is only just beginning to come into focus. Earlier this year, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in 2021, 40% of high school seniors felt so sad or hopeless that they were unable to engage in regular activities for at least two weeks that year. Almost 20% made a suicide plan.

Every year, social media companies spend tens of millions of dollars trying to convince lawmakers of their innocence on these matters. But this is a bargain for them. The $19 million that Meta spent on lobbying last year is pocket change next to the $100 billion in advertising revenue. And despite the platforms’ well-funded denial campaign, evidence is mounting that there is a causal link between social media use and poor mental health. Even the tech companies themselves admit it in the safety of their sprawling campuses.

When teens lose sleep over social media, so do parents. This recent survey, commissioned by Issue One’s Council for Responsible Social Media, shows that public concern about social media is rooted in concern for children. Eight in 10 Americans blame social media for childhood mental health issues such as bullying, eating disorders, depression and anxiety.

There is also a consensus about the dangers to our democracy. Almost 80% of Americans blame social media platforms for political extremism. We were both in Congress during the rise of social media and the amazing wave of conspiracy theories that came with it. To save our democracy for future generations, we need prevention, not just treatment.

Social media also endanger our safety. Just weeks ago, dozens of classified military documents were widely shared on online forums, and the FBI warned that the Chinese government could use TikTok to access Americans’ most personal information and manipulate public opinion. If we don’t protect our online systems, our children will inherit shoddy defenses against our adversaries.

We are not powerless. There are several bipartisan proposals in Congress today aimed at protecting our children, democracy and privacy from the dangers of social media. These include the Kids Online Safety Act, which US Senators Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. reintroduced in this session, as well as the American Data Privacy and Protection Act and the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act.

We call on more of our former colleagues to resist industry pressure and enact meaningful reforms. Our organization’s survey showed that they would be rewarded. Voters take this issue so seriously that they are more likely to re-elect representatives who support reforms.

Congress should also hold the tech industry accountable. That certainly seems like a tall order – but no bigger, in our opinion, than the crackdown on the tobacco industry in the 1990s. Back then, hearings in Congress helped strengthen legal accountability and regulation and create a public consensus that tobacco harms millions of people. The recent congressional hearing with TikTok’s CEO was a bipartisan show of force and an encouraging sign. We must not allow this momentum to falter.

Like Big Tobacco, Big Tech says social media use should be a matter of personal choice. On a certain level, that obviously makes sense. But when products are designed to be addictive, when advertising is aggressive and misleading, and when the harm to young people and others is significant, we must not be intimidated by companies promoting free market stereotypes. Congress has dealt with big industry to protect Americans before. It should do it again.

Our nation’s children don’t pledge millions of dollars to political campaigns or unleash powerful lobbyists on Capitol Hill. But the next generation is our most important constituency. Lawmakers should keep them in mind as they consider what can be done about the scourge of social media.

If you or a loved one have mental health problems, help is available. Call 988 or text to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. NAMI Chicago can connect you to local resources at 833-626-4244.

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.

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