In recent years, technology has advanced at a rapid speed. Our society has seen amazing new developments with technologies like artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, 3-D printing, and green hydrogen. The way that society connects and communicates has changed completely in roughly a decade: From 2012 to 2022, the number of social media users exploded from 1.43 billion to 4.7 billion. Not only do these technological advancements hold the potential to change the world, they already have.  

Technology has also created incredible opportunities for kids. Educational games, apps, and resources that can be accessed instantaneously have created more engaging ways to learn than ever before. The internet can expose children to different cultures, languages, and create opportunities to develop a sense of community. Services like assistive technology have changed the lives of children with learning disabilities and visual impairment, creating the possibility of more equitable learning conditions.  

But technology also can put children in danger and at risk of increased mental health issues. In this uncharted territory, safeguards must be implemented to ensure the safety of the public. Legislation must reflect the potential dangers that come with new technologies. As with most areas of public policy, lawmakers have once again left behind the needs of our children. The advancement of technology and social media without adequate protections for children has already produced harmful consequences.  

While technology continues to develop, America’s youth are facing a worsening mental health crisis. The youth suicide rate rose 62% from 2007 to 2021. Emergency room doctors say they are desperate for help to treat children with mental health struggles and that they are ill-equipped to handle the growing pediatric mental health crisis. Dr. Willough Jenkins, medical director of emergency and consultation liaison psychiatry at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, says that the number of children seeking psychiatric emergency care in her ER has grown in the past few years from around 30 a month to 30 a day. 

The youth mental health epidemic has a high correlation to technological advances. A study found that children who spent more than 3 hours per day on social media faced twice the risk of developing poor mental health, including depression and anxiety. Additionally, up to 95% of youth use social media, and more than a third said they used it “almost constantly.” 

Why does social media have such a drastic impact on mental health? The answer may lie in algorithms. Widely used social media platforms, such as TikTok, use algorithms to recommend content to users. Algorithms are a complex set of calculations that determine a user’s feed.  They work to sort through tons of content to determine what may be interesting and relevant to a user and are designed to funnel specific information to users depending on their viewing history. For example, TikTok tracks every like, comment, rewatch, and swipe, to find what the user is most interested in and keep them on the app. Ultimately, the algorithms keep users glued to their phones to increase advertising revenue. 

The Wall Street Journal investigated TikTok algorithms by creating over 100 automated accounts. They found that the video feed started the same way for each user, with very popular videos being shown first. However, reporters found that as the algorithm developed, certain accounts were continuously shown disturbing content, including videos encouraging eating disorders, sexualizing minors, and romanticizing suicide and depression. No wonder kids are struggling with their mental health – they’re being served problematic content that is created to be addictive.  

Outside of mental health concerns, serious physical safety concerns also arise from social media and synthetic media. Beyond algorithms consistently showing kids content that endangers their mental health, the ease of posting every image and thought on the internet puts children in danger. With the click of a button, children can post images online that expose their location and subject them to harmful and potentially life-threatening consequences. Traffickers have used social media to identify potential victims and find information about friends, family, work, school, and possible vulnerabilities. The usage of social media makes it abundantly easier for children to be targeted and exploited.  

Most recently, advancements in Artificial Intelligence (AI) have made a more troubling environment for children. AI has reportedly been used to create false indecent images of children. Experts have claimed these photos are very realistic. Thousands of images of child sexual abuse also proliferate in AI image-generators. Reports also show that the prevalence of AI-generated images among abusers is consistently growing.  

Social and synthetic media go largely unregulated even as new features emerge at a rapid pace. Unfortunately, legislation has failed to keep up with these developments and our children remain unprotected. To mitigate further harm, federal lawmakers must put their differences aside and get serious about moving forward with protecting children’s mental and physical health. To be truly effective, these protections must include accountability measures and restrictions for the multibillion-dollar tech groups, rather than placing all the responsibility on parents and kids.