In advance of President Biden’s first State of the Union address, the White House announced plans to address the nation’s mental health crisis, specifically calling out social media’s impact on kids and teens. This issue has been top-of-mind for some members of Congress, especially after whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked a trove of damning internal documents from Facebook (now Meta), including evidence that the company is aware of its negative impact on teens.
According to the White House, President Biden will call on Congress to strengthen privacy protections, ban targeted advertising to children and urge tech companies to stop collecting children’s personal data.
Tech typically doesn’t play a significant role in State of the Union speeches, and it’s possible Biden might not even address these points tonight, given the more immediate crisis regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Regardless, the president is calling on social media platforms to protect the safety of their youngest users. First Lady Dr. Jill Biden even invited Haugen to the event as a special guest, indicating the president’s attention to her advocacy, which sparked a series of five Senate hearings with social media executives.
“The President believes not only that we should have far stronger protections for children’s data and privacy, but that the platforms and other interactive digital service providers should be required to prioritize and ensure the health, safety and well-being of children and young people above profit and revenue in the design of their products and services,” the White House’s briefing reads.
This language is reminiscent of Haugen’s rhetoric throughout her appearances in Congress, as she has repeatedly noted since her “60 Minutes” interview that, from her perspective as a former employee, Facebook prioritizes profits over safety.
The president also outlined a plan to invest at least $5 million toward research on how social media harms us, and what clinical and societal interventions can be used to address these harms. The Department of Health and Human Services will also launch a national Center of Excellence on Social Media and Mental Wellness, which will educate the public about the impact of teen social media usage.
Biden is also expected to call on Congress to ban excessive targeted advertisement and data collection on children. Effective in 2000, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is intended to restrict tracking and targeting of users under the age of 13, but the law can’t be enforced unless a platform is proven to be aware of its users’ ages. So, COPPA often isn’t easily enforceable, since a child can simply click a “yes, I am 13” box and access content not intended for them.
Already, some legislators have attempted to update COPPA to make it more effective. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) proposed a bill last year that would make it illegal for internet companies to collect personal data from users between 13 and 15 without their consent. This legislation would also create an “erase button,” which would allow users (or their parents) to manually erase the data that a company has collected about them.
The concept of an “erase button” also appeared in the recently introduced Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), brought forth by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). Back in October, representatives from YouTube, TikTok and Snap all agreed at a Senate hearing that parents should have the ability to erase online data for their children or teens.
The White House briefing also addresses how algorithmically-served content can result in negative mental health impacts, especially among young women of color.
“Searches for ‘Black girls,’ ‘Asian girls’ or ‘Latina girls’ too often return harmful content, including pornography rather than role models, toys or activities. Platforms shape how our kids understand what is possible and access opportunities,” the briefing says. “We must ensure that platforms and other algorithmically-enhanced systems do not discriminatorily target our kids.”
Several bills have floated through Congress over the last few years that aim to solve the problems that the White House is outlining in this briefing, but few have even come close to getting passed. Even when legislation does gain enough momentum to become law, it sometimes doesn’t accomplish what it was intended to achieve. In 2018, former President Trump signed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) into law. As its name suggests, the law was intended to curb trafficking, but instead, it just made conditions more dangerous for consensual sex workers.
Besides dedicating $5 million to research and setting up a national Center of Excellence on Social Media and Mental Wellness, Biden’s commentary on social media and mental health merely echoes what has been debated in Congress for years. But these messages confirm that Biden is at least somewhat paying attention to the lives Americans lead online.
At the State of the Union address, Biden did indeed find time to allude to his plans for taking on social media giants:
He said: “Children were also struggling before the pandemic. Bullying, violence, trauma, and the harms of social media. As Frances Haugen, who is here with us tonight, has shown, we must hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit. It’s time to strengthen privacy protections, ban targeted advertising to children, demand tech companies stop collecting personal data on our children.”
Haugen also commented on the President’s remarks after the speech:
“I’m grateful that President Biden elevated this issue in the State of the Union so we can continue exposing the truth of what social media is doing to kids’ mental health and empower all parties to change this horrifying reality,” she said in a statement emailed to press, which she also posted on Twitter. “Facebook and Instagram are flawed products designed to addict and amplify the worst in our children and ourselves. They are buying their profits on the backs of our kids’ mental health.”
Update, 3/2/22, 9:20 AM ET with quotes from President Biden and Frances Haugen.