Mumun De Choudhury

Report Says Social Media Companies Putting Youth Mental Health at Risk

Social media companies that restrict researchers from accessing their data could be jeopardizing the mental health of teens and children.

That’s just one of the many findings of a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). The report details how stakeholders can minimize the harm and maximize the benefits of social media for young users.

Munmun De Choudhury, an associate professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing, served on a 12-person committee appointed by NASEM to answer pressing questions about social media and adolescent mental health and well-being.

On December 12, the committee released its 250-page report titled Assessment of the Impact of Social Media on the Health and Well-Being of Adolescents and Children. The report offers recommendations for social media companies, Congress, the U.S. Department of Education, and others.

The report also details the difficulties of researching social media and assigning labels to it at the population level. A population-level study such as this examines a phenomenon’s impact on an entire population as opposed to individuals.

However, because social media experiences vary vastly from demographic to demographic and from person-to-person, the committee could not reach any concrete conclusions about social media’s impact at the population level.

“The important piece is that when we talk about the impacts of social media, whether positive or negative, they’re not monoliths,” De Choudhury said.

“For us to understand how these platforms impact us, we must acknowledge these platforms are part of our lives. What happens outside these platforms in the offline world influences whether we get positive or negative benefits.”

One of the obstacles to obtaining more conclusive data is the lack of transparency from social media companies.

One of the major questions asked by the report is, do social media companies have a responsibility to mitigate the harms of social media on youth, and what actions can they take?

Anonymity emboldens perpetrators of online harassment and cyber bullying, making it critical for social media companies to develop easy-to-use report and response systems, the report says.

The report also encourages these companies to be transparent with their data so researchers can better understand how online harassment impacts young people.

“There are many limitations imposed by the platforms that make it difficult for third-party researchers to conduct studies to understand how misinformation or bullying or hate speech impact young people,” De Choudhury said.

“One of the report’s recommendations is that we may need new collaboration models, possibly through incentive structures or legislation, to fill these gaps between academic institutions and companies.”

Other recommendations made in the report include:

  • Developing support programs for children who experience digital abuse and evaluate the effectiveness of such programs.
  • Developing new standards for social media platform design, transparency, and data use and having social media providers adopt those standards as a matter of policy.
  • The U.S. Department of Education should promote the importance of media literacy, and state education boards should set standards for grades K through 12.
  • Designing teacher training interventions as part of ongoing professional development for veteran teachers.

The social media industry fluctuates with new trends and technologies emerging almost daily. However, De Choudhury says it’s not too late to regulate it for the benefit of young people.

“We shouldn’t feel like there is nothing that we can do because these technologies are moving so fast,” she said. “We are not powerless as a society. We are not promoting doom and gloom, but there are things that need to be done and no single stakeholder can fix the situation. We need a collective strategy and involvement from a variety of stakeholders to overcome this.”

To download the full report, visit the NASEM website.