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New York City Takes On The Social Media Crisis

New York was covered in a thick fog of smoke from the fires burning in Canada. It seemed likely that the gathering at the Rockefeller Foundation conference center would be canceled. But the entryway was full of people, masks on — but there.

It was an unusual gathering, convened by Eric Adams, New York City Mayor, and titled “NYC’s Role in the National Crisis of Social Media and Youth Mental Health.”

In a packed room, a mix of city and government officials, academics, business leaders, and social media researchers shared the singular concern: how to address the devastating impact social media was having on our kids.

As New York City Health Commissioner Ashwin Vasan opened the conversation, he didn’t pull any punches. “We also have to contend with the reality that social platforms are designed to foster addiction. Some of the world’s most talented engineers are dedicated to keeping you, and young people, on social media as much as possible, and it works.” You could hear the concern in his voice as he said, “Answers will not be easy to come by, not least because social media companies will limit our access to information and lobby to remain unregulated. In fact, the only other industry that I can think of that is so unregulated is the gun industry. Just think about that for a minute.” LINK

Comparing social media to guns, and equating the damage they cause, was a powerful analogy.

Arriving just three minutes late, Mayor Adams bounded to the stage. The smoke in the city was certainly taking some of his attention, but he wasn’t about to miss the event. Adams’ concerns about social media have him raising the alarm. “Those of us who are lovers of Greek mythology: I believe that this is to be the great war in the Trojan Horse. The device that was supposed to be used for communication has turned into a device that is being used in a very destructive way,” said Adams. “The social media companies are well aware of the algorithms that attract you and lure you into what they’re doing. Profit cannot be [prioritized] over public safety and health.” LINK

The day went on with three more panels and then an afternoon of working groups meant to find solutions.

“I have such a unique perspective because of what it has done to my family, because I intimately understand what it means to be a mom who sees their child completely 100% addicted, and seeing these racist oppressive algorithms literally spiral him out of control,” said Jameila “Meme” Styles, the founder of wemeasure.org, a research and data activism organization. “We’re talking about the data-fication of our lives. We’re talking about the commodification of our lives.”LINK

How did this happen? It goes back to the internet’s earliest days, said Professor Nicholas B. Allen of the Center for Digital Mental Health at the University of Oregon. “It’s the original sin of the Internet,” he noted. “The people expected to get stuff for free and then as a result of getting stuff for free, they had to monetize it somehow because it’s not free to deliver the service. And so then they say, okay, we’ll target you with advertising, and so now we’re collecting data. What it does is motivate the design of products that are engaging or addictive. We really need to be focused on legislation… [to] get business incentives aligned with wellbeing and health incentives.” LINK

But perhaps the most exciting conversations in the room happened because students were invited to participate

A group of 15 young people from Teens Against Guns kept the conversation honest.

Raziya Palmer, a 10th grader at Success Academy High School of the Liberal Arts in Manhattan, shared how COVID and social media took her down a dark path. “Being isolated and not having anyone to talk to only left social media. It didn’t really boost my morale. It just made me more addicted, and at the end I felt even more depressed.”

Palmer said adults don’t always understand what she’s facing. “I wish adults could be a tad more patient with seeing how their children react to certain things, and try to figure out what is [causing] that reaction. Is this just ‘teenage hormones,’ is it just being disrespectful, or is this because of what they’re looking at online? Sitting down and talking to your children is one of the biggest ways to help them.”

The discussion was wide-ranging, exploring key legal developments, public health strategies, key legislation, and the current state of research. In the end, there were ideas about ways to create safety nets and make sure New York’s public infrastructure is attentive to the growing dangers that teens are facing from social media.

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