The debate over reining in Big Tech gets into some difficult issues involving freedom of speech vs. censorship.
The left and the right appear equally distrustful of large technology companies but approach things from different perspectives. The right sees bias that stifles conservative voices while liberals criticize a Wild West of misinformation.
Maybe both sides can find one common point of agreement: The online space needs to be made safe for children.
The compare-and-despair aspect of social media has been known for a long time, but an 18-month Wall Street Journal investigation still serves as a wake-up call regarding the potential negative effects on young people, particularly teenage girls. The newspaper found that the social comparisons on Instagram, a Facebook-owned platform that’s popular for sharing the most flattering photos and videos, can push some teenagers toward eating disorders and depression.
Even more troubling, the research also suggests that Instagram’s Explorer page, which displays photos and videos curated by its algorithm, can direct young users to harmful content.
All this comes at a time when Facebook still is moving ahead with plans to launch Instagram for Kids, a site aimed at users under the age of 13. This almost seems like a digital equivalent of candy cigarettes in the 1970s.
Whether you’re talking about misinformation or the impact of social media on young people, a big part of the debate is how much the technology genie can be stuffed back into the bottle. Surely there’s no going back, but elected officials have a role to play, especially since Instagram has emerged as the social media of choice for many teens who prefer to leave Facebook as the digital space for boomers, parents and other geezers.
In a joint statement, Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Marsha Blackburn said the newspaper’s reporting “reveals Facebook’s leadership to be focused on a growth-at-all-costs mindset that valued profits over the health and lives of children and teens.”
At the very least, Congress should demand an end to Instagram for Kids and hold hearings to learn more about Facebook’s marketing and internal research aimed at getting its youngest users hooked.
By the way, Blumenthal is a Democrat and Blackburn is a Republican. This rare display of bipartisanship raises hopes that, during a month devoted to preventing suicide, lawmakers of all parties will start asking some questions.
Forget the questions about liberal vs. conservative voices. Right now, a more pressing line of inquiry involves the role Big Tech plays in the mental health of its youngest users.