Last week, the U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on Social Media and Youth Mental Health issued a stark warning that “while social media may have benefits for some children and adolescents, there are ample indicators that [it] can also have a profound risk of harm to [their] mental health and well-being.”
One study the advisory cites noted that U.S.-based adolescents aged 12-15 that spent more than three hours a day on social media doubled their risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes, including symptoms of depression and anxiety. Social media absolutely can hurt kids’ self-esteem, and Facebook is well aware of the fact that Instagram is often toxic for teenage girls. A report from the Psychology of Popular Media journal also found that reducing social media could improve one’s self esteem, and President Biden has stated that social media is contributing to a youth mental health crisis.
The natural response has been to call for regulation of social media companies, primarily focusing on holding companies accountable for the things that their users see or do on said platforms (such as the Kids Online Safety Act). While this is helpful in the sense that it could potentially scare these platforms straight (though one might wonder how significant a deterrent a $1.3 billion fine is to a company that makes tens of billions of dollars a quarter), lawmakers fundamentally miss the point that the algorithms themselves are what manipulate people of all ages, and that said problem continues well into adulthood.
The government should regulate social media companies — and said companies should be forced to disclose the exact nature of their recommendation engines — but these regulations are minimally helpful when society treats social media as something that happens to us rather than something we can prepare for and understand.
Kids grow up in the age of social media and are mostly just given a computer and told “go nuts.” Children are being bought their first smartphones as early as 7-years-old, and while their parents might give them some guidance and supervision, there is no formal education in what the internet is and what it’s like. Despite 85% of Americans having smartphones and 93% of Americans using the internet, digital literacy doesn’t appear to be a huge part of any curriculum I can find. 72% of public schools in 2022 offered “digital literacy training” for students, there doesn’t appear to be any kind of standardized way of teaching it. That, and to actually teach this kind of thing requires you to be a digital native in a way that may not fully permeate society for some time.
And while digital literacy education is increasing, it’s heavily weighted toward educating people about how misinformation works. Finland has a robust anti-misinformation education initiative that focuses on teaching basic reasoning online — one that several states are trying to integrate themselves — but it focuses heavily on the idea that we need to be able to differentiate between “good” news and “bad” news, which is only one part of the larger problem of being online.
You see, we dump people onto the internet. While we might teach kids the basics (what to watch out for, where to search for stuff, what Facebook is, and so on), we don’t see preparing someone for the internet as something that belongs in a social education class. We tell our children to always look both ways before crossing the street , to not talk to strangers, to seek the help of authorities when they are in trouble, and the signals of whether they may be in danger, but we fundamentally fail to do these things for the online realm, largely because most people don’t know what they look like.
This is partly because we still societally apply the same lenses to internet content as we would a book or a magazine or a television program, believing that there is no way that somebody could just mislead us, as such a thing would be illegal. While it’s obvious that this wasn’t the case before — Fox News alone proves that it’s perfectly possible to lie on television all the time — the scale of the internet is such that people are continually taken in by authoritative-looking content that seeks to misinform or disinform someone. Take this example from a Stanford professor’s online disinformation course:
Wineburg, an educational psychologist in the Stanford Graduate School of Education, asks the students to imagine they’re trying to get help for a bullied sibling. He instructs them to type in a string of keywords into Google and click on one of the top results. There, they’ll find a well-formatted page on bullying. There’s a logo, a .org domain name, and an author with an MD. The students concur: The website looks like a legitimate place to figure out how to deal with bullying.
So Wineburg asks the students to open a new tab and tells them to Google the name of the organization that runs the page: the American College of Pediatricians (ACPeds). Now the top hits include the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has identified ACPeds as a fringe hate group. Wikipedia is up there, too, providing a dispassionate history: The organization was formed to oppose adoption of children by gay couples and promotes conversion therapy for LGBTQ people. Much of the page on bullying is devoted to insisting that schools should not run anti-bullying programs focused on “special characteristics” that might “tempt” adolescents to “experiment with atypical behaviors.” But the information is formatted and footnoted to look trustworthy.
The larger problem is that while we can teach people to be curious and cautious with the content they consume, we are not teaching them to be aware of the rationale behind being manipulated.
ACPeds is a hate group, and their reasoning for putting out seemingly-innocent content around helping kids with bullying is to undermine LGBTQ youth. Knowing both their agenda and intention is important because it teaches you not just what they believe, but also why they have to cloak said beliefs in authoritative and respectable trappings rather than directly stating their disgust toward LGBTQ people.
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The Men Behind The Curtain
These are basic forms of reasoning that we are taught — albeit in passing — by our parents and peers. We know to be aware of scam artists promising massive returns on investments, but the cryptocurrency industry took advantage of millions of people by dressing itself in the trappings of banking and respectable investments. We know not to let children talk to random guys who ramble about how much they hate women, yet Andrew Tate was able to grow a vast following of teenage boys because parents didn’t make their kids aware of how people on the internet directly and intentionally manipulate you.
This is, in part, because society is either yet to quantify the significance of the internet or still believes it to be, on some level, “just some stuff online.”
Governments fear misinformation and disinformation because they lead to people making stupid or fatal decisions, or acting in rational-seeming ways based on information that is built to make them behave irrationally. But the larger problem is a misunderstanding of agendas and rationales — of why people do what they do online, for whom said content is intended, and for what reason they continue to do it.
This is because most people have a very poor understanding of influence, and because outside of mass media, we experience only the thinnest forms of it in our day-to-day lives. The people we meet may have a constructed image that they use to influence romantic interests or help their professional prospects, but most people we meet are not constructing said image with the care and organization that we are regularly exposed to online. The way in which people interact online is wholly different, and we are not societally prepared or educated in the numerous ways this works, nor do we take it seriously enough, oftentimes distinguishing between “the internet” and “the real world” as if they are wholly disconnected.
People on Instagram are constantly beset with the constructed brands of people that want them to like them for their beauty, their wealth, where they’re eating or who they’re eating with. Of course young people feel inferior the moment they touch the internet — there are seemingly thousands of people their age that are unimaginably wealthy or successful, with no context as to whether said success or wealth is real or carefully-constructed. While we are able to educate young people that people in reality shows or on TV have a constructed image, we are woefully inept at educating them on how manipulative the internet can be.
I’d argue that this is because we treat the internet with the same level of irresponsibility as we treat the rest of the basics of preparing people for life in society. The concept of teaching home economics (or Family and Consumer Sciences) — basics like cooking, cleaning and balancing a checkbook — is effectively dead, leaving the things you actually need to function in your day-to-day lives to either be acquired through parenting or natural curiosity, neither of which are particularly reliable or universal.
Young people are not formally educated in the basics of banking, accounting, cooking, cleaning, health or even fitness, which has increasingly become “everybody does the same thing, as the same thing works for everybody.” I had extremely attentive parents that taught me these things, but many people I know had to work it out for themselves (or simply failed to do so).
American society puts a heavy onus on rugged individualism, yet provides little to no guidance as to how one might survive on their own. We pressure people to be thin, to be healthy, to save, to pay their taxes and to live respectfully with others, and then give them no formal education, leaving them to find answers on the internet, a place that could educate them in any number of ways, many of them incorrect.
This isn’t to say that the internet is inherently bad, but that dumping people into it while also defaulting on any societal obligation to social education is a recipe for disaster. If we don’t educate people on the basics of living in society — and on the internet — we are letting Google, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and anyone that uses it effectively become our social education system.
And if that’s what we do, we can’t act surprised when the results lead to radicalization and discord.