The American Federation of Teachers and several advocate groups are warning that social media is undermining the lessons being taught in classrooms nationwide. According to a recent report published by AFT and its partners, the platforms are also the “root cause” of the current youth mental health crisis in the U.S. 

Collaborating with AFT on the study were the American Psychological Association, the nonprofit groups Fairplay and ParentsTogether, and the youth-led coalition Design It For Us. 

“Parents, caretakers and educators can do everything right — place internet time limits, restrict social media usage, have the difficult conversations — and yet the youth mental health crisis still rages on and children are still easily able to find the darkest corners of the internet,” said Ailen Arreaza, executive director of ParentsTogether, in a news release. 

“Tech companies must take responsibility for the harm they do, and if they will not, our government should step in and require them to make these product changes in the interest of youth safety,” Arreaza said. 

According to the report, school districts across the U.S. say they’ve been dealing with an increase in concerning behavior from students they think has been sparked by social media use, including:

  • Bullying 
  • Dangerous behavior
  • Dangerous viral challenges
  • Depression
  • Harassment
  • Suicidal ideation

The AFT said school districts have been forced to hire more mental health professionals and must train teachers to deal with mental illnesses due to the recent decline in the mental health of students across the country.

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Report Calls Out Social Media

Likes vs. Learning: The Real Cost of Social Media for Schools” is the name of the report released by the American Federation of Teachers and its partners. The organizations are offering recommendations to social media platforms on how they can better serve children while also improving classrooms. The report centers around five guiding principles:

  • Directly engaging and working with schools and families
  • Prioritizing the safety of children
  • Protecting students from overuse and addictive behavior
  • Protecting students from risky algorithms
  • Protecting students’ privacy

AFT isn’t blaming one social media platform over the other, but instead offers advice to all companies. Some of the recommendations include:

  • Default young users’ accounts to high privacy
  • Stop excessive data tracking and harvesting
  • Stop personalized marketing to minors 
  • Stop algorithms that feed traumatic content to students

The report said social media companies need to take control of their apps before Congress does it for them.

“Our schools shouldn’t have to devote precious resources to cleaning up the mess caused by social media companies’ reckless pursuit of profit,” said Josh Golin, executive director of Fairplay, in the AFT news release. “It is past time for tech companies to take responsibility for the harms they cause to young people’s mental health and learning, and for Congress to require them to put children’s interests first in the design and operation of their platforms.”

Recent Warnings About Social Media

This report comes just two months after Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a warning that social media is a top contributor to anxiety, depression and other mental health problems in children and teenagers. Murthy said in May that while social media can offer some benefits, it can also be detrimental. Studies show that up to 97% of adolescents ages 13-17 say they use social media and more than a third say they use social media “almost constantly.” 

Soon after Murthy’s warning, the American Psychological Association released recommendations for children’s social media use. A major component of that involves increased supervision by parents or guardians. The APA also released a list of things to watch out for that could indicate a child or teenager’s social media use is becoming problematic.

Some social media companies have made adjustments to their apps in the past year. Facebook and Instagram’s parent company, Meta, announced a number of changes in 2022. Some of the changes include age verification and a plan for accounts managed by parents for children ages 10-12. 

So far, nearly 200 school districts in the U.S. have sued social media platforms for alleged harm to children, according to The Wall Street Journal. The legal action filed is against the parent companies of YouTube, Snapchat, Facebook and TikTok. These suits, along with hundreds of others filed by families across the nation, have been consolidated in U.S. District Court in Oakland, California.