Buried in Senator Josh Hawley’s (R-MO) recent slew of policy ideas on how to curb the potential harms from social media lies a diamond in the rough. Last week, the lawmaker introduced the Federal Social Media Research Act, a bill that would authorize a federal study on the impact online platforms have on children’s mental and physical health. While more research is a good idea, the bill focuses on finding out if using social media heavily increases the risk of mental and physical disorders when it would be more valuable to focus on understanding which content causes harm.
Sen. Hawley’s bill would order a study to investigate if there is a relationship between children who use social media a lot and higher rates of suicide, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, ADHD, and gender dysphoria. It would provide $1 million for a short-term study due to Congress a year after the bill is enacted and $20 million for a long-term study due after 10 years.
To see why it would be much better to study the types of content that are more likely to be problematic, let us consider the two scenarios that could emerge from Sen. Hawley’s study as currently envisioned. If his hypothesis is right, the study will show that using social media more leads to higher probabilities of certain disorders in minors. But that isn’t particularly helpful because social media includes immense and heterogeneous content and neither politicians nor platforms can target the root causes of these issues if they don’t know which content causes harm. If teens are more likely to develop eating disorders because they are spending lots of time online, is it because they are being roped in by content that glamourizes weight loss? Or is content that encourages disordered eating the main culprit? Or is the problem any type of content that features individuals with unhealthy body ideals?
On the other hand, if Sen. Hawley’s hypothesis is wrong, the study will not find a link between higher rates of social media use and mental and physical disorders. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem with some content for some users. Researchers from Cornell, Harvard, and the University of Chicago found in a 2022 paper that the properties that can make content problematic are to a large extent user-dependent—if two people watch a celebrity gossip video it might make one user feel bad while being no problem to another. Or consider a scenario where a user only goes on social media once a week but is being recommended highly problematic content compared to another user who goes on social media platforms several times a day but is only recommended educational content. How long a user spends online is not the most useful metric for welfare if one does not consider the type of content they are consuming.
Sen. Hawley should therefore amend the Federal Social Media Research Act to authorize a federal study on the impact different types of social media content have on user welfare. There is already some valuable work in this area that a federal study could build on, and future work can explore which measures might be most useful for preventing harm. More research could help platforms understand how design features like suggested breaks and autoplay impact users.
There are many proposals to address potential harms to children online, but the reality is that experts don’t yet understand the problem. Congress shouldn’t waste an opportunity to study this problem in a way that will create impactful insight.
Image credits: flickr