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“Log Off”: 1 in 3 U.S. Girls Weighs Suicide. Will Congress Restrict Big Tech?

StoryFebruary 20, 2023
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As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns teen girls face record levels of depression and hopelessness, we host a roundtable on the role of social media and a bipartisan push against Big Tech in Congress. Several child safety-focused bills to curtail children’s exposure to harmful online interactions are being proposed this session. Critics say the measures may not actually help children while limiting speech and privacy rights. We are joined by three people who testified last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee: Emma Lembke, a college student and founder of the LOG OFF movement, which promotes healthy social media use among teens; Mitch Prinstein, professor of psychology and neuroscience and chief science officer at the American Psychological Association; and Josh Golin, executive director of Fairplay, a consumer advocacy group dedicated to ending marketing targeted at children.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.

The Centers for Disease Control is warning teen girls across the U.S. are engulfed in a, quote, “growing wave of violence and trauma,” as new data shows there has been an increase in rapes and sexual assaults, as well as record levels of depression and hopelessness. The data is from a 2021 CDC survey conducted on 17,000 high school teenagers where nearly a third of teen girls said they had seriously considered suicide — up nearly 60% from a decade ago. At least 13% of them said they had attempted suicide in the past year, while almost 15% of the girls surveyed said they had been sexually assaulted.

We turn now to look at calls from Congress to do more to protect children, especially girls, online. We’re joined by three guests who testified last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Josh Golin is the executive director of Fairplay, which protects children from the harmful manipulations of Big Tech. Dr. Mitch Prinstein is the chief science officer at the American Psychological Association. He’s also a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And Emma Lembke joins us. She is the founder of the LOG OFF movement, which is to get kids offline. She’s a sophomore studying political science at Washington University in St. Louis. She’s joining us from her dorm room right now. But first I want to go to a part of what you told senators last week in Congress.

EMMA LEMBKE: As my screen time increased, my mental and physical health suffered. The constant quantification of my worth, through likes, comments and followers, heightened my anxiety and deepened my depression. As a young woman, the constant exposure to unrealistic body standards and harmful recommended content led me towards disordered eating and severely damaged my sense of self.

AMY GOODMAN: Emma Lembke , a sophomore in college, Washington University, addressing the Senate, the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Emma, thanks so much for joining us today. Can you talk about exactly what happened to you, the amount of time you spent online, and how it affected you psychologically?

EMMA LEMBKE: Absolutely, and thank you for having me on today.

So, I got my first social media account in the sixth grade at around the age of 12. And as I began to spend more times on these platforms, my mental and physical health suffered. The constant quantification of my worth, through likes, comments and followers, heightened my anxiety and really led me towards a worsened mental state. And the constant exposure to harmful recommended content, that was feeding me pro-anorexic content, led me towards disordered eating. All of these negative consequences, I still deal with and grapple with today.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about —

EMMA LEMBKE: So, all of that —

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about this issue of disordered eating and how it came from what you were imbibing from online. Talk about how it works, the whole algorithm, and what you were looking at and the silos it brought you down.

EMMA LEMBKE: Absolutely. So, I always use YouTube as an example. So, when I was a young girl, 12 years old, and I went on YouTube to look up a good workout or a healthy recipe, that one search indicated to the algorithm that it should feed me pro-anorexic content. So, within seconds of watching that video, addictive algorithmic design techniques, such as autoplay, that keeps a video recommended playing — and you don’t have to click anything, and it will send it to you — that led me towards dangerous rabbit holes, feeding me pro-anorexic content, when all I wanted was a healthy recipe.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how did you deal with this? I mean, you’re talking about going on in sixth grade onto social media. How many years did it take you to say, “Hey, we ought to get off of this”?

EMMA LEMBKE: It took me about three to four years. You know, I got Instagram at the age of 12 in the sixth grade. And it took getting into the ninth grade, entering high school, to reach a breaking point. And that being said, the negative consequences that I — that really appeared through my usage of social media, I still am grappling with today. I am still repairing my sense of self, my body image. And those things are incredibly detrimental, specifically when you’re dealing with them during your most formative years. So, that is kind of one of the reasons why I launched into the LOG OFF movement and my own advocacy, was to protect all of those 12-year-old girls and young women who are yet to interact with these online places and are yet to enter these dangerous rabbit holes.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, are you a total Luddite? You obviously aren’t completely off social media, because here we are, talking through Skype.

EMMA LEMBKE: I’m not, and I think that that’s one really integral piece of information that my generation understands. It’s that social media and the online world is multifaceted. We can connect with one another, we can express ourselves, and we can explore these online spaces. But what is important is that they are regulated and that they are safe for young users, that addictive designs, like autoplay, does not send me, a 12-year-old girl, into a depressive, pro-anorexic content hole. So, I’m still on these apps, but I have placed levels of friction between me and these addictive technologies. One thing that I do not think should be on the user, a burden that should not be on the parents but should be on these companies, to not addict their young users.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Dr. Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer at the American Psychological Association, also professor of psychology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, you’re dealing with young people like Emma every day. What are you recommending, and what did you tell the senators last week?

MITCH PRINSTEIN: Well, first of all, we have to be really careful about the age that kids are first getting on. Remember that the brain is going through one of the most important periods of development right around 10, 11, 12. In fact, the brain is not fully developed until 25. So we’ve got a biological vulnerability period where kids are going to want things like interaction with peers, likes, reposts. Those are the kinds of things that are triggering a part of the brain that becomes really supercharged at that pubertal transition period.

We also have to be really careful about kids’ addiction or dependency online. We’re finding that one of every — excuse me, 50% of teens are having such a hard time getting offline. They can’t stop. They are spending a lot of time to make sure they have perpetual access. It’s interfering with their daily roles and routines.

AMY GOODMAN: And suicide, such a painful increase among girls. I mean, it is absolutely astounding, these figures, that nearly a third of teen girls said they had seriously considered suicide, up nearly 60% from a decade ago. At least 13% of them said they had attempted suicide in the past year.

MITCH PRINSTEIN: Yeah, we’ve seen incredibly high rates and increasing rates, even before the pandemic. This is a decades-long problem with youth mental health. But what we’re seeing now, and perhaps linked to social media, is a tremendous amount of discrimination and cyberbullying that’s happening, sometimes with kids even telling one another that they should attempt to end their lives, as a form of bullying on social media. And just like the pro-anorexia content that Emma was discussing, there’s a remarkable amount of content that encourages kids to cut themselves or to think about suicide, even sanctions kids when they talk about maybe not cutting themselves anymore, with remarkably explicit content teaching them not only how to do it, but how to conceal that information from their parents.

AMY GOODMAN: Emma, were you concealing information from your parents?

EMMA LEMBKE: I don’t think that it was that I was necessarily concealing the information. I think I felt really hopeless, and I didn’t know what to do. And I assumed that my parents would not know what to do, either, since they are not digital native. So, I think that’s one very unique position that my generation, Gen Z, is put into as we get older, is we have this understanding of these acute harms that are present within these online spaces, and it is on us to tell our stories to inform other generations, to protect the next generation.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s bring Josh Golin into this conversation. Josh Golin is the executive director of Fairplay, joining us from Newton, Massachusetts. Josh, you also testified before the Senate. And you are particularly holding Big Media accountable. What do you demand they do? And do you believe, actually, in self-regulation? I don’t mean kids like Emma. I mean the companies. Can you trust them to regulate? Or what are you demanding that the U.S. government do?

JOSH GOLIN: Yeah, no, we absolutely cannot trust these platforms to self-regulate. Congress has not passed a law to protect children online since 1998. And that law only protects children up to until their 13th birthday, so teens have no protections on right now. So the situation that Dr. Prinstein and Emma were describing has occurred in a completely unregulated environment. The platforms, you know, when they are caught doing harmful things to young people, first they deny it, then they drag their feet, then they may make some superficial changes. It shouldn’t be up to them to decide 100% how these environments, which our kids are spending six, eight, 10 hours a day in, are designed. We need new safeguards. We need new policies.

Some of the things that my organization is calling for, and legislation which Congress considered last year, like the Kids Online Safety Act and the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy and Protection Act, some of things this legislation would do: extend privacy protections to teens, so that not as much data can be collected, which fuels all these harmful recommendations; end surveillance advertising to kids; end targeted marketing to children and teens. All of this is happening in order to hook kids, in order to sell them to advertisers. So we need to disrupt the business model.

And last but not least is we need a duty of care. We need platforms to have a legal obligation to consider how their platforms are designed and how their algorithms are designed, and to prevent and mitigate the most serious harms to young people. Right now their only responsibility is to their shareholders. And as long as their only responsibility is to their shareholders, they’re going to keep trying to addict kids any way they can, even if it means serving them pro-anorexic content, pro-self-harm content.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to an Axios event in Philadelphia about a half a decade ago, 2018, Facebook’s founding president Sean Parker saying the site’s deliberately designed to hook users.

SEAN PARKER: That thought process was all about: How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content. And that’s going to get you, you know, more likes and comments. And it’s a social validation feedback loop, that it’s like a — I mean, it’s exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. … It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other, with — you know, it probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Sean Parker, founding president of Facebook. Dr. Mitch Prinstein, how do you force this regulation, and who are the forces that are fighting you, for example, in Congress?

MITCH PRINSTEIN: Well, I mean, I think that there are a variety of ways that this could be regulated from a legal perspective. But if you listen to that piece, these are brilliant folks who have created a terrific platform for keeping kids engaged. Imagine what you can do with that if it was being used for good, if it was being used to teach kindness or to help kids with their emotion regulation skills or their psychological development. I think that, at the least, we should use this amazing profit that social media companies have amassed to teach kids how to use their platforms in really beneficial ways, to get the most psychological good to come out of it, and maybe even to create modules or experiences that we know could train kids and prevent them from mental health difficulties.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Emma, you talk about logging off. You founded the LOG OFF movement. But you’re not completely logging off. So what do you say to young people? How can you do it in any kind of healthy way?

EMMA LEMBKE: What I say to young people is you need to mentally log off and reflect back on your own usage, asking deeper questions: Why am I on these platforms? Who do I follow? What makes me happy? Where am I harmed? And in answering these questions, young people can begin to curate their experiences online for themselves, prioritizing their safety, their well-being, over other companies prioritizing the maximization of our attention. It is all about placing levels of friction between us and these addictive technologies. And that has to be facilitated through self-reflection.

AMY GOODMAN: Emma Lembke, we want to thank you for being with us, founder of LOG OFF Movement; Josh Golin, executive director of Fairplay; and Dr. Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer at the American Psychological Association, professor of psychology at University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, you can call 988. That’s the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. That’s right, dial 988. Or you can go to the Crisis Text Line by texting ”HOME” to 741741.

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