Light Wave


Social Media Algorithms Making Kids ‘Desperately Unhappy’ Says Senator

By Jake Beardslee · July 22, 2023

Senator Chris Murphy is calling for more oversight on social media and its effect on the wellbeing of children.  Doctorxgc, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

While the growing threat of artificial intelligence took center stage at the United Nations this week, Senator Chris Murphy says there’s another technology crisis in need of even more regulation: social media’s impact on children.

In an interview with MSNBC, Senator Murphy warned that algorithms on sites like Instagram, TikTok and YouTube are “making kids desperately unhappy.” He pointed to data showing increased rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts among young social media users.

“This is an epidemic that is really hitting our kids regardless of age,” said Murphy. “We know that even though these sites say that they don’t let anybody under 13 on…there are plenty of young kids on these sites as well.”

The Connecticut Democrat attributed the rise in loneliness and sadness among youth to the “social media age.” He argued that an endless stream content by algorithms deprives kids of the “rituals of childhood” like exploration and discovery.

“When that connection and when those interests are just fed to you by an algorithm on a smartphone, you are robbed of that really important exercise of going out and discovering for yourself what you’re interested in,” Murphy said. “I think that’s part of what is driving kids’ unhappiness today.”

To address the issue, Murphy has co-sponsored bipartisan legislation that would require parental consent for teens on social media, verify users’ ages, and ban algorithms that customize feeds for those under 18.

Murphy, who recently conducted a discussion session with panel of teens, said they expressed alarm about losing algorithm-customized feeds. “These kids were really dependent on the algorithm, and they really couldn’t envision a world in which they had to expend effort to find content,” he observed.

While acknowledging concerns about free speech, Murphy argued that other restrictions exist to protect minors. “I do think there’s plenty of examples here where we do give parents some rights,” he said. “Parents in this country are really clamoring to be empowered to have a conversation with their children about when their children are ready to be on social media.”

Murphy’s regret: “The social media companies are in charge, not the parents.”

Light Wave commentary

Senator Murphy’s proposals underscore the debate around protecting children online while respecting free speech and parental rights. Social media companies argue they have measures in place to protect minors, but acknowledge serious challenges.

Additional research is needed to better understand the complex relationship between social media and youth mental health outcomes. In the interim, Senator Murphy’s constructive push for appropriate safeguards is welcome. He is correct to say that parents need to be granted to tools and authority to make sure their children’s interactions with social media are safe and appropriate.