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Regulating Out of the Social Media Health Crisis

By Bailey Kennedy

If something changes the pathways in our brains and damages our health — and if it does so to Americans on a vast scale — it should be regulated as a threat to public health.

It’s time for our regulators to acknowledge that social media fits this description.

Social media poses an active health threat to many of its users, in a way that is akin to other regulated substances: it has been tied to a variety of harmful health outcomes, including depression. It has also become increasingly clear that social media can be addictive.

Even if it is a behavioral rather than a substantive addiction, with only indirect links to physical health, the high number of Americans who exhibit some degree of social media addiction is concerning.

Inasmuch as social media presents us with a public health crisis, the American government should consider potential regulatory steps to address it.

The U.S. might follow the path of China in this regard. This summer, China moved to dramatically regulate youth interaction with video games. With the passage of a new law, Chinese children were limited to three hours of video games per week. At the time, a state-run media outlet referred to video games as “spiritual opium,” evoking the historical opium addiction crisis in China.

This direct analogy to drugs presents one strategy to legitimate a potentially controversial policy. While it might seem like a stretch for the government to regulate the leisure time of its citizens, the American government already does so via drug regulation. If social media were understood to be more akin to an addictive drug than a form of media, regulating it might be more palatable to the American public.

Social media presents many of the same harms that the Chinese government seems to attribute to video games. At least some commentators seem increasingly willing to acknowledge this reality, and some politicians have introduced legislation which would explicitly regulate social media’s use of addictive features.

So what would it mean to regulate social media as an addictive drug? Well, you probably won’t need to go to your doctor to renew your Facebook prescription anytime soon.

Some have argued that social media addictiveness can be dealt with through existing mechanisms. For example, if antitrust law were more actively applied to some social media platforms, some authors argue that it is at least plausible that the introduction of more competitors would induce social media platforms to adopt less harmful practices. However, this seems to assume that most people would choose for themselves a less-addictive social media model. Other areas in which addiction is at play seem to cast doubt on this assumption. While many people might indeed make the choice to preferentially engage with a less-addictive social media model, others may find themselves unable to make that choice.

At the same time, regulating the way that social media platforms operate is tricky because of the First Amendment aspect. The American government — to a much greater extent than its Chinese counterpart — has to work within robust framework of rights. Algorithms like the ones used by Facebook are likely to be protected by the First Amendment. If the government were to try to force Facebook to adjust its algorithm to make its product less addictive, they might run into compelled speech issues. Facebook can’t be forced to write an algorithm that it does not want to write.

Arguably, however, if social media were to be regulated like other addictive products, it might be feasible to interpret code as more akin to a drug formula than to other types of speech. Perhaps Facebook could also be compelled to monitor users of its product for side effects like depression and anxiety, as reflected by keywords in their comments and statuses. High rates of side-effects could be a cue for the government to require Facebook to reconfigure its formula in a less harmful manner.

However, there are less dramatic steps that the government could take to attempt to treat social media addiction as a public health crisis without fundamentally altering the nature of social media.

Like other addictive products, the government could set and enforce an age limit for social media use. Although all social media platforms have at least a nominal age limit for registration, these limits have no enforcement mechanism and are often flouted. Perhaps it may be time for this to change. If social media were to be kept out of high schools, and its use restricted to young adults who have at least slightly-more developed cerebral cortexes than the under-18 crowd, people might be less inclined to spend so much time on social media, or might, at the very least, be less vulnerable to some of social media’s most egregious harms.

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