In a health advisory, the American Psychological Association (APA) has stated that the use of social media does not inherently harm or help children. This finding comes at a critical time when federal lawmakers are keenly scrutinising the effects of these platforms on youth, with an aim to overhaul the digital interactions.
This new determination by the APA, asserting that the impact of social media on children is dependent on individual circumstances, is poised to influence the legislative discourse around Big Tech companies. These companies have been under scrutiny for their alleged harm to children, with lawmakers working closely with the APA to draft legislation to curb such impacts.
The APA advisory states, “Using social media is not inherently beneficial or harmful to young people. Adolescents’ lives online both reflect and impact their offline lives. In most cases, the effects of social media are dependent on adolescents’ own personal and psychological characteristics and social circumstances.”
These findings arrive as Congress contemplates several proposals to alter children’s interactions with tech platforms. Legislators are deliberating on the extreme step of banning kids from using social media over concerns of addiction and potential digital dangers.
The APA’s advocacy arm has been instrumental in working with senators to develop the Kids Online Safety Act. This proposed legislation directs social media platforms to prevent harm to children and allows users to opt out of algorithmic recommendations online.
The APA’s latest study is part of an evolving body of research exploring the potential benefits and harms of social media use on adolescents’ social, educational, psychological, and neurological development. It has emphasised the importance of this issue, which has seen active engagement from various stakeholders including youth, parents, educators, policymakers, and tech industry members.
The APA’s advisory also highlights the built-in racism often found in social media platforms’ algorithms, which can potentially fuel hate and cause harm. It states, “Algorithms can often have centuries of racist policy and discrimination encoded. Social media can become an incubator, providing community and training that fuel racist hate.”
The recommendations, based on psychological science and related disciplines as of April 2023, are expected to be instrumental in guiding policies and actions around adolescent engagement with social media. However, the APA acknowledges the limitations of these studies, such as the lack of data to establish cause-and-effect conclusions, the unavailability of long-term outcomes, and the underrepresentation of marginalised youth groups in these studies.
With these findings, the APA has further emphasised the need for a science-informed approach to the complex issue of youth engagement with social media. As the debate on the regulation of Big Tech continues, the role of such scientific inputs is expected to be increasingly critical.