Meta Platforms CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Apology Isn’t Enough
Republicans deserve credit for getting Meta Platforms' CEO Mark Zuckerberg to apologize to families whose children were exploited online. Now Democrats should push them to pass new laws.
Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri deserves credit for badgering Meta Platforms CEO Mark Zuckerberg into offering an apology last week to families of children victimized by sexual predation on social media. At the same time, it's not as if this was unprecedented: Zuckerberg has a lot of experience saying he's sorry in public, going back to when he was a teenager.
The hard part, after someone apologizes, is making amends. And here's where Hawley and his fellow Republicans should enlist the help of their Democratic colleagues. When it comes to the relationship between business and government, Democrats know that you can't just ask executives to be more mindful. You need to make actual rules and regulations that force the pursuit of profit to advance the public interest.
We are on WhatsApp Channels. Click to join.
Democrats, unfortunately, have been largely behind the curve in asking the big questions about the corrosive influence of social media and mobile technology on American society, particularly among young people.
Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz has introduced the most assertive federal legislation on mobile phones in schools, for example, with John Fetterman of Pennsylvania as the lone Democratic co-sponsor. On the state level, Republican-led Florida has taken the lead. But even Cruz's bill is remarkably narrow, affecting only the one-third of US schools that receive federal money for broadband service, requiring them to block access to social media platforms and disclose how much classroom time is spent on screens. Those are useful steps, but they fall far short of banning phones from K-12 schools — as Florida, the UK and Italy have done.
And the school issue is just one subset of the larger question of how smartphone technology is transforming kids' lives — and whether that transformation is for the better.
While Zuckerberg apologized for harmful sexual abuse, he was defiant on the broader question of social media and mental health, arguing that “the existing body of scientific work has not shown a causal link between using social media and young people having worse mental health outcomes.”
This is in part about standards of evidence. There are no double-blind randomized trials demonstrating that smoking causes cancer, but that doesn't mean smoking doesn't cause cancer — it simply means you can't conduct a randomized trial of smoking. By the same token, it's hard to know exactly how to conclusively test a hypothesis about a large-scale social change. If you take one kid's smartphone away, leaving him out of group chats and social media, he'll no doubt be miserable. But that's hardly a fair test of the proposition that the mass adoption of ubiquitous messaging devices has been harmful to young people.
As psychologist Jean Twenge argues, the fact that teen mental health spiraled downward in many different countries simultaneously suggests the culprit should be something — such as phones and social media — that spread very rapidly around the world at this time. And correlational studies show that heavy social media users, especially girls, have worse mental health. That's not a causal analysis, of course. But longitudinal studies also show that when people reduce social media usage, mental health improves. Some studies show that random reducing social media usage improves well-being.
But the most relevant data for the hearing's purposes may be a quasi-random study published in November 2022 that exploits the fact that Facebook was initially available only on some college campuses, with eligibility expanding gradually. This window of time allowed researchers to compare outcomes at campuses with Facebook to those without, getting a sense of the social rather than personal influence of social media.
And what did they find? “The rollout of Facebook at a college had a negative impact on student mental health. It also increased the likelihood with which students reported experiencing impairments to academic performance due to poor mental health.”
It's not conclusive evidence; you couldn't convict Facebook or another social media platform in a court of law on the basis of these studies. But a Senate hearing room is not a courtroom — thankfully — and by public policy standards, there is more than enough basis for taking action.
For Republicans, of course, hesitancy to regulate big business comes as second nature. The Cruz bill is far too limited, but it's at least in line with conservative ideology — focusing on possible misuse of federal dollars rather than looking at the broad problem in public-health terms.
Democrats are supposed to be the party that tackles this kind of problem. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has acknowledged widespread parental concerns and the growing body of evidence, but his office lacks regulatory authority. It's past time for elected officials to start looking at these issues beyond the narrow lenses of antitrust and “misinformation.” They need to ask the big question of whether these devices and platforms are harming kids — and if so, what to do about it.