Today, Instagram executive Adam Mosseri testified before Congress about the platform’s impact on children and teenagers. Ahead of the hearing, Instagram rolled out new features for parental control and prompts to take breaks. However, these changes are woefully inadequate and fail to address the root of its harm: exploiting children’s data to maximize profit by algorithmically amplifying distressing content.
We can expect that lawmakers will recommend modifying Section 230 in an attempt to address the harms associated with social media. Changing 230 won’t fix the problem and will do enormous harm to human rights and free expression. The problem is algorithmic manipulation fueled by mass surveillance.
To address social media harms, lawmakers must abandon the too-simple narrative that “social media is bad for kids.” Social media harms are rooted in the platforms’ business model. Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube are dangerous because their business model is designed to maximize profit by whatever means necessary. Massive amounts of personal data, including inferences about insecurities and mental health, inform the algorithms that decide what shows up in News Feeds. In order to maximize engagement, the algorithms amplify the type of content users interact with, often leading them to increasingly extreme content.
Directly regulating algorithms would be challenging, but lawmakers can cut off the fuel supply for social media platforms’ destructive machines by enacting a real federal data privacy law strong enough to effectively kill surveillance capitalism as a business model.
Kids deserve access to secure, transparent, non-exploitative social media and messaging that’s not built on a model of harvesting their data and using it to manipulate them. And they deserve basic online rights including privacy and anonymity when necessary.
We should be asking ourselves what kind of Internet we want our children to grow up using. Even more importantly, what kinds of policies and technologies lead to the world we want our kids to grow up in. If we enact Internet regulations in the name of “protecting kids” that kneecap the youth-led climate justice movement, we’re not making the world better for young people.
Let’s not use kids as pawns in a push for sloppy and misguided policies that will do more harm than good, like poking holes in Section 230. Let’s envision the Internet we want to leave to our children’s children, and fight for it.