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‘There are fewer regulations protecting children online than there are for the sale of eggs’.

That’s one of the payoff lines from the Financial Times film ‘Capture: Who’s looking after the children?’, which paints a sobering picture for any parent raising a family in today’s multiverse.

Concerns about the impact of technology on our children aren’t new, especially that of social media companies and their ‘engaging’ algorithms, but recent research and lawsuits are beginning to crystalise the issue.

In January, CNN (among many others) reported how in the US the Seattle School Board, which has more than 50,000 students in its care, filed a lawsuit against major technology companies, claiming it was harming its ability to ‘to fulfill its education mission’.

That lawsuit, CNN reported, was filed against the parent companies of some of the most popular social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube.

CNN quoted from the lawsuit which alleged the companies: “have successfully exploited the vulnerable brains of youth” to maximise how much time users spend on their platforms in order to boost profits.

“The actions taken by the platforms, according to the suit, have “been a substantial factor in causing a youth mental health crisis, which has been marked by higher and higher proportions of youth struggling with anxiety, depression, thoughts of self-harm, and suicidal ideation.”

Now, another US school board has filed a similar action, with the San Francisco Chronicle reporting how on March 14, the San Mateo County superintendent and school board late launched its case, ‘claiming the companies unlawfully created “provocative and toxic” content to addict and entrap young people, leaving schools to address a destructive and growing youth mental health crisis.’.

Increasing research on social media impact

This California lawsuit comes at a time when cyberbullying and online harassment have become major concerns for schools and parents across the US. According to a recent study by the Cyberbullying Research Center, more than one in three students have experienced cyberbullying at some point in their lives, and more than one in five have experienced it within the past year.

In addition, cyberbullying and online harassment can have serious consequences for students, including depression, anxiety, and suicide. A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that victims of cyberbullying are nearly twice as likely to attempt suicide as those who have not been bullied online.

Another US study published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2020 found that adolescents who spent more time on social media were more likely to experience symptoms of depression. The study followed over 3,800 adolescents aged 10-15 years for two years and found that those who spent more than three hours a day on social media were at higher risk of experiencing depressive symptoms. The study also found that the link between social media use and depression was stronger for girls than for boys.

In the UK, The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health in a 2019 study found that social media use was associated with increased risk of anxiety and poor sleep quality in young people. The study analysed data from over 10,000 adolescents in the UK and found that those who used social media for more than three hours a day had higher rates of anxiety and poorer sleep quality compared to those who used social media for less than one hour a day.

In the past week a powerful piece of journalism in the UK painted a similarly alarming pictured, with the FT’s John Burn-Murdoch publishing his opinion piece ‘Smartphones and social media are destroying children’s mental health’. (subscription required)

His detailed exploration of young people’s mental health, often citing the work of Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University.

Burn-Murdoch writes: “Studies show that the more time teens spend on social media, the worse their mental health is. The gradient is steepest for girls, who also spend much more time on social media than boys, explaining the sharper deterioration among girls’ mental health than boys.

“British teens who spend five or more hours a day on social media are at two to three times greater risk of self-harm than their less-online peers. It’s a similar story in the US with suicidal ideation. Grimmest of all, the now-familiar hockey stick trend is also clear in rates of suicide deaths among British and American teens.”

Just one of the data charts from the powerful FT opinion piece

In his March 10 article Burn-Murdoch points to ground zero, or the ‘inflection point’ as he calls it – 2010, the year that smart phones went from ‘luxury to ubiquitous’.

Social media companies’ response

Regarding the San Mateo legal action, the Chronicle reported how “Google representatives did not respond to the lawsuit but did address concerns about youth access.”

“We have invested heavily in creating safe experiences for children across our platforms and have introduced strong protections and dedicated features to prioritize their well-being,” said José Castañeda, Google spokesperson, to the Chronicle. “For example, through Family Link, we provide parents with the ability to set reminders, limit screen time and block specific types of content on supervised devices.”

Antigone Davis, Meta’s global head of safety, said in a statement to CNN following the filing of the suit: “The platforms have more than 30 tools to support teens and families, including supervision tools that let parents limit the amount of time their teens spend on Instagram, and age verification technology that helps teens have age-appropriate experiences.

“We’ll continue to work closely with experts, policymakers and parents on these important issues.”