Major questions on minors: Research and regulation needed on child social media use

A new report from U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy outlines how often compulsive social media use by children and teens leads to a variety of negative health outcomes, including declining mental health, lack of sleep, exposure to harassment and other problems. As platforms like Instagram and TikTok become ubiquitous with 95% of kids using some app, the report calls on parents, children, tech companies and, crucially, policymakers to take action.

There is broad agreement on the need for federal regulation, with even industry groups and officials pushing for clear and generally applicable guardrails as a preferable alternative to patchy, 50 different kinds of state-level legislation or confusing or too-targeted policies that are attempting to wrangle specific companies.

But who should write these controls, and to what end? Lawmakers are woefully unprepared to regulate technologies that they can hardly understand and whose long-term repercussions they are unequipped to foresee and preempt (just look at the often embarrassing congressional hearings featuring policymakers stumbling around basic concepts). Industry has an alluring alternative: let people with deep expertise write the laws. Where might one find these people? Industry itself, and its lobbyists, of course. They would like that.

Neither of these is a particularly good solution, which is why policymakers should work on actually building out the expertise to constrain the tech without subverting it completely, not just for social media but all technologies of concern, including AI. That means paying attention to the academics and journalists that are documenting harms and leaning not just on lobbyists but researchers who have no entanglements with the companies being regulated.

Research like that done by Murthy’s staff is a crucial piece of that puzzle, and more resources should be dedicated to impartially studying the dimensions of the problems caused by tech so that lawmakers aren’t teetering in the dark. There may, as the report itself notes, be some concrete benefits to social media use by kids, but the documented harms are also too far-reaching, long-acting and widespread to allow the industry to police itself.