Why Are Tech Billionaires Apologizing? Lawmakers Now Calling for Regulation of Social Media

CEOs of Instagram, Snapchat tell parents at Senate hearing they’re sorry for deaths of children.

PUBLISHED FEB 8, 2024 11:56 A.M.
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Inadvertently, the beloved Muppet Elmo called attention to the mental health dangers of being too heavily online.

Inadvertently, the beloved Muppet Elmo called attention to the mental health dangers of being too heavily online.   Peabody Awards / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. 2.0 Generic License

Elmo was just trying to be a friend. After all, that’s what the popular Sesame Street character does. But when Elmo posted to his account on the social media platform X (aka Twitter) on the morning of Jan. 29, he wasn’t prepared for the response.

Elmo—whose social media accounts are managed and written by a 25-year-old woman in New Jersey named Christina Vittas—put one simple, seemingly harmless question to his 546,500 followers on X.

“Elmo is just checking in!” Elmo (i.e. Vittas) wrote.  “How is everybody doing?”

The replies to that innocent query were overwhelming, too many for Vittas—a social media manager for Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit TV production outfit behind Sesame Street and several other children’s educational television programs—to keep up with, she told Today.com. Most confessed some type of trauma, anxiety or similar mental health problem.

“Elmo, I’m depressed and broke,” wrote one.

“My dog passed three weeks ago, and me and my Fiancée are still grieving. Prayers would be appreciated,” wrote another user

“I really really try to be happy and strong at work but, sometimes it’s just too much, Elmo,” wrote yet another. “I'm struggling.”

“Every day I wake up I know it’s not going to get any better until I go back to sleep,” read another reply. And on and on it went.

At least on social media, it seemed, things were generally not going great, and people were not doing well at coping. Amid a growing suspicion that a major cause of the mental health crisis in America, the same one inadvertently revealed by Elmo, is social media itself, a United States Senate Committee called four California CEOs, and one Singapore-based social media boss, in to testify on Jan. 31.

Did the hearing do any good? And what is the connection, if any, between social media and mental health issues?

Apologies to Parents of Social Media ‘Victims’

The California social media bosses hauled before the Senate Judiciary Committee were Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Meta, parent company of Facebook and Instagram; Linda Yaccarino, CEO of the Elon Musk-owned X; Jason Citron, head of the chat app Discord; and Evan Spiegel, the Malibu native who founded Snap Inc., parent of Snapchat, and who nine years ago became a billionaire at age 25 thanks to his app.

Spiegel and his company are based in Los Angeles. Discord and X operate out of San Francisco and Meta’s headquarters sits in Menlo Park.

They were joined at the witness table by Shou Zi Chew, the 41-year-old CEO of TikTok, who is based in Singapore although the app’s parent company, ByteDance, was founded by Chinese entrepreneur Zhang Yimeng. TikTok splits its headquarters between Singapore and Los Angeles. The company says it does not operate inside of China.

That didn’t stop Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton from repeatedly grilling Chew over whether he was “a member of the Chinese Communist Party.” Chew was forced to remind Cotton that he was, in fact, Singaporean and had even served in Singapore’s military.

The show-stopping moment of the hearing, however, occurred when Zuckerberg, after prodding by Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley, stood to face a group of parents whose children, they said, had died or been psychologically damaged as a result of their experiences on social media.

The parents told stories of children who had been sexually exploited online or bullied, some committing suicide due to the trauma. One parent said his son died after attempting the “choking challenge” that went viral on TikTok. The so-called “game,” also called the “blackout challenge,” encouraged users to strangle themselves until they lost consciousness. That sounds like rather inadvisable behavior. Nonetheless, young people on TikTok were taken in by it, to the point where at least 15 died in just an 18-month span from 2021 to 2022, according to a Bloomberg report.

TikTok has nothing to do with Meta, but other parents said that their kids suffered mental health damage from their experiences on Instagram, with one couple saying that their daughter had succumbed to a fatal eating disorder after becoming obsessed with posts about “healthy eating.”

Responding to Hawley’s hectoring, Zuckerberg addressed the parents in the hearing room directly.

“I’m sorry for everything you’ve all gone through. It’s terrible,” he said. “No one should have to go through the things that your families have suffered. And this is why we invest so much and are going to continue doing industry-leading efforts to make sure that no one has to go through the types of things that your families have had to suffer.”

But when grilled about whether Instagram can cause young girls to experience psychological and self-esteem issues over body image, Zuckerberg denied it, even though an internal study conducted by Meta and leaked to the Wall Street Journal in 2021 stated exactly that—namely that “we make body image worse for 1 in 3 teen girls.”

Spiegel also addressed the parents, apologizing for failing to prevent teens from using the Snapchat platform to access illegal drugs, some of whom are said to have died from overdoses.

There’s Something About Instagram…

Meta’s internal study, according to the Journal report, singled out Instagram as especially damaging to body images compared to other social media apps, noting that “social comparison is worse on Instagram.” 

Why? Because, according to the Meta study, TikTok videos are generally performative, and Snapchat employs often humorous photo filters that “keep the focus on the face.” Instagram, on the other hand, is filled with users’ idealized full-body shots.

After the Journal report was published, based on documents provided by former Meta product manager Frances Haugen, Meta published a lengthy rebuttal claiming that the “1 in 3” result was taken out of context.

“On 11 of the 12 issues in the slide referenced by the Journal, such as eating issues, loneliness, anxiety and sadness, teenage girls who said they experienced these challenges were more likely to say that Instagram made these issues better vs. worse,” the Meta rebuttal stated. “The one exception was body image.”

But the leaked Meta internal research was far from the only study to link Instagram use to body image dissatisfaction among users, especially (though not exclusively) young female users.

A 2023 study in the academic journal Current Psychology concluded that frequent exposure to “positive” body images on Instagram was linked to “higher levels of Body Dysmorphic Dysfunction symptoms even after controlling for appearance comparison and internalization of general attractiveness ideal.” Another 2023 study published by JMIR Formative Research concurred, finding that “the use of Instagram is associated with poorer body image satisfaction and self-esteem.”

And a 2022 research report published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health stated that “browsing on Instagram was associated with lower levels of body appreciation,” and that “being an adolescent female (compared to a young woman) and having a higher BMI were associated with worse body appreciation.”

Can Social Media be Regulated?

The surgeon general of the United States has also taken the view that social media is harmful to children, issuing an “advisory” report stating that “children and adolescents who spend more than 3 hours a day on social media face double the risk of mental health problems including experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety.”

The surgeon general’s report acknowledged “gaps in our full understanding of the mental health impacts posed by social media,” but stated nonetheless that “we cannot conclude that social media is sufficiently safe for children and adolescents.”

At the Jan. 31 hearing, Judiciary Committee Republican ranking member Lindsey Graham told the CEOs, “You have a product that’s killing people. When we had cigarettes killing people, we did something about it. Maybe not enough. You’re gonna talk about guns, we have the ATF. Nothing here.”

But can governments regulate social media? California tried in 2022, when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed off on a new law titled the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act. The bill, AB 2273, was set to take effect in July 2024. The law would require online services—social media and other sites—to limit data collected from minors under the age of 18, and for sites to attempt to assess the ages of users, as well as put other privacy protections in place for minors.

In September of 2023, however, a federal judge blocked the new law. In a lawsuit brought by a trade association of online giants such as Google, Meta, Amazon, Twitter, and TikTok, U.S. Northern District Court Judge Beth Freeman ruled that the California law “likely violates the First Amendment,” and handed down a preliminary injunction against it. California is appealing the order.

Other states are also taking steps to rein in social media. The Colorado legislature has taken up a bill that would require “educational” warnings on apps designed to break social media addictions and promote “healthier” online interactions.

And in New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul in January outlined a “seven-point plan” for promoting children’s mental health. The plan includes proposed legislation titled the Stop Addictive Feeds Exploitation (SAFE) for Kids Act. The law would prevent the use of algorithms by social media apps to create feeds for users under 18, unless parents consent to the algorithmically determined content.

Otherwise, users under 18 would receive only straightforward, chronological content posted only by users in their “friends” lists.

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