In an extraordinary move, the U.S. Surgeon General has warned that social media provides a “meaningful risk of harm to children.”
“Our children have become unknowing participants in a decades-long experiment,” Vivek Murthy tweeted this morning, as he announced his latest advisory. “And while there is more we have to learn about the full impact, we know enough now to take action and protect our kids.”
The stats in Murthy’s advisory are quite alarming. Adolescents who spend at least three hours a day on social media—and the average in the U.S. is 3.5 hours for eighth- and 10th-graders, according to the advisory—“face double the risk of mental health problems including experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety.” Almost half of 13- to 17-year-olds say social media makes them feel worse.
The Surgeon General’s advisory is clear that we don’t yet understand the full impact of social media on developing brains, but points to research that suggests the negative effects are particularly pronounced at that phase of life:
“Frequent social media use may be associated with distinct changes in the developing brain in the amygdala (important for emotional learning and behavior) and the prefrontal cortex (important for impulse control, emotional regulation, and moderating social behavior), and could increase sensitivity to social rewards and punishments. As such, adolescents may experience heightened emotional sensitivity to the communicative and interactive nature of social media.”
Murthy’s advisory does highlight some of social media’s potential benefits for young people—access to more diverse peer groups than they might find offline; support for marginalized groups; outlets for creativity. But it also calls on lawmakers to “pursue policies that further limit access—in ways that minimize the risk of harm—to social media for all children and adolescents.”
(Fun fact: The only major social media firm that’s actually doing this voluntarily is the much-reviled TikTok, which announced in March that it was instituting a one-hour daily time limit for those under 18. But I digress.)
The advisory also urges policymakers to develop “age-appropriate health and safety standards for technology platforms” and to “require a higher standard of data privacy for children and adolescents.” All this will be music to the ears of those senators who have introduced three competing bills that are all designed to protect kids on social media.
Murthy also has a list of things that the tech firms themselves should do, such as prioritizing user health in the design of their social media services. But critics of the industry don’t see that happening without legislation. “Congress must act to ensure social media platforms are held to standards of safety, transparency, accountability, and responsibility by legislation,” said Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, in response to the advisory.
Personally, I don’t think these are problems that can be entirely legislated away. Social media has become an integral part of how most people interact with and experience society, and the underlying issues—vanity, jealousy, bullying—are fundamentally societal. Parents and other caregivers have the most important role to play here, and Murthy’s advisory includes some useful albeit basic tips for them.
However, it is by now very clear that social media’s dopamine-driving mechanisms make those problems far worse, which means there should be technical, user-experience-related changes that can be made to mitigate the dangers. But what are they?
Are time limits the answer? Can age verification play a part without becoming a privacy nightmare for users in general? I’m very interested to know what viable ideas are out there, so if you have one, drop me an email—I’ll publish some of your feedback later this week.
Want to send thoughts or suggestions to Data Sheet? Drop a line here.
Data Sheet’s daily news section was written and curated by Andrea Guzman.
Apple’s push on generative A.I. In recent weeks, Apple has posted job listings for at least a dozen positions that focus on machine learning. One job listing tells applicants that they would leverage generative models to build fundamental applications on top of Apple’s most advanced technologies. Generative A.I. hasn’t shown up in Apple products, and the company has been slower than its tech peers on A.I., though it does use machine learning in its products for features like fall detection and heart monitoring. This follows a recent earnings call where CEO Tim Cook said the company plans to continue weaving A.I. into products “on a very thoughtful basis.”
TikTok sues Montana. The top lawyer for TikTok had previously told staff that the company would fight a ban in court. Now, the company is following through on that and filed a lawsuit Monday to overturn Montana’s ban slated to go into effect in January. TikTok says the law is an unconstitutional violation of free speech rights and the idea that the Chinese government could access users’ data is just speculation. A handful of creators made similar arguments in a lawsuit filed last week. But Montana disagrees, and a spokesperson for the state’s Department of Justice said it is “fully prepared to defend the law that helps protect Montanans’ privacy and security.”
Shutterstock buys Giphy. Photography company Shutterstock has agreed to buy Giphy from Meta for $53 million after Meta acquired the animated GIF search engine for $400 million in 2020. The deal is expected to close next month, and Meta is also entering a commercial agreement to continue accessing Giphy’s content across its product suite. This follows a 2021 order from the U.K.’s antitrust authority for Meta to sell Giphy. At the time, Meta appealed but decided in October last year to end attempts to get its way, TechCrunch reports. In an announcement, Shutterstock CEO Paul Hennessy said the acquisition will allow the company to move its audience beyond mostly professional marketing and advertising use cases and into casual conversations.
On Our Feed
“This isn’t an A.I. issue, per se. Anyone with Photoshop experience could have made that image—ironically, could probably have done it better.”
—Renée DiResta, research manager at Stanford Internet Observatory and misinformation expert, on a viral tweet yesterday claiming the Pentagon exploded, based on an A.I.-generated image. DiResta told the Washington Post that the instance shows how signals that help people decide whether news is trustworthy on Twitter are unhelpful when tools to create fake, high-resolution images are so widely available.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Ousted Google ethics executive sees A.I. as a ‘gold rush’ where ‘the people making money are not the ones in the midst of it,’ by Eleanor Pringle
Ice Cube, musician who became famous rapping over samples, says A.I. is ‘demonic’ for doing a very similar thing, by Tristan Bove
Bill Gates says the winner of the A.I. race will be whoever creates a personal assistant—and it’ll spell the end for Amazon, by Eleanor Pringle
Top tech analyst argues A.I. has spawned a ‘Game of Thrones’–style battle for what is a $800 billion opportunity over the next decade, by Will Daniel
Think you deleted all your embarrassing old tweets? A bug is bringing them back for a wide swath of users, by Chris Morris
BEFORE YOU GO
Max is live. HBO Max is gone, and in its place, Warner Bros. Discovery launched Max today, which offers almost eight times as much 4K entertainment as HBO Max. More 4K films and shows will be added every month, and all Warner Bros. movies released from now on will be available in 4K when they’re put on Max after their theater releases.
In a statement, Warner Bros. Discovery clarified that existing HBO Max subscribers will still have access to their current plan features for at least six months, and pitched Max and its increased library of 4K content by saying classics like The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca can now be viewed in a sharper format.
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