Discussing social media harms and kids’ online safety

In late April, we heard a panel of engaging speakers—including Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen and California legislators Nancy Skinner and Jesse Gabriel—at the Center for California Studies at Cal State Sacramento.
Published: Thursday, May 05, 2022

By Nelson Santiago

In late April, we heard a panel of engaging speakers—including Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen and California legislators Nancy Skinner and Jesse Gabriel—at the Center for California Studies at Cal State Sacramento. The conversation, focusing on how misinformation in social media can harm children and how to limit industry practices that allow harmful content to thrive, was moderated by Jim Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media.

Steyer kicked off the discussion (“Making Technology Work Better for California's Kids”) by reminding attendees that California, not Washington, D.C., has proven to be the most important place in the nation for data and privacy regulation, not only because most tech companies are based there, but also because it has been the center of the most important legislative and regulatory privacy efforts in the U.S., including passage of the California Consumer Privacy Act.

When introducing Haugen, Steyer described how, after seeing deeply troubling patterns and practices at Facebook, she made the extraordinarily courageous personal decision, at great personal risk, to blow the whistle on Facebook. Haugen exposed astonishing details about how Facebook and other tech platforms amplify division, extremism, polarization and self-hatred—even violence—among their users.

Haugen, in 2021, told Congress that Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy, but that the company won't make changes because they have put profits before people. During the panel discussion, Haugen explained that a lot of the issues that she flagged in her disclosures about Facebook (now Meta), such as the use of algorithms that ultimately push users toward more extreme content, are also present across other tech platforms. For example, if a kid opens a new Facebook account with no friends and no interests, searches for a couple of things like healthy eating and healthy recipes, clicks on the first 10 items in their feed each day, and follows the suggested hashtags, in two or three weeks they will start seeing content that glorifies anorexia and self-harm. Kids aren't looking for the harmful content; the platform is providing it, said Haugen.

On hand to discuss potential legislative solutions were California State Senator Skinner and California Assemblymember Gabriel. Senator Skinner reminded attendees that, in every aspect of life, government has had to step in to regulate in order to ensure safety. For example, when car manufacturers didn't want to install seat belts because the extra cost would cut into profits, government required the seatbelts. She said that because corporations will rarely, if ever, voluntarily put safety measures in place if they feel it might interfere with profits, we, as a society, need to document the harms and require the safety measures.

Assemblymember Gabriel, who is a Democrat and chair of the Assembly Committee on Privacy and Consumer Protection, emphasized that part of what's creating momentum for regulation in this area is bipartisan interest; legislators are looking at the issues as parents. Gabriel described potential solutions. This includes the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, which would, if passed, require companies to take into consideration the best interests of kids, and other current legislation that focuses on transparency. He said it is "time for [tech companies] to pull back the curtain a little bit and be honest with policymakers and the public about their content moderation policy." Gabriel also discussed the importance of education, looking at how to best teach kids to be good digital citizens, so that they can protect themselves online.

Gabriel acknowledged that neither one bill nor one legislative session will be enough to solve everything, but said that progress must be made, and not just because as a father he worries about his kids. He warned that the impact of social media is the common thread that runs back to many of the challenges faced in the state—gun violence, hate crimes, and disinformation about climate change and elections.

For further reading see:

  • Slate’s “The Most Important Answer From the Facebook Whistleblower” (link)
  • Time’s “The 5 Most Important Revelations From the 'Facebook Papers'” (link)
  • PBS’s “Facebook’s leadership had ‘no appetite’ to fact check political ads, combat disinformation” (link)



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