Social media’s effect on kids is ‘deeply concerning,’ says local policy expert

Maryland lawmakers are considering a number of bills dealing with the addictive nature of social media, especially as it relates to children.

House and Senate panels heard from parents of children who took their own lives after being relentlessly bullied online or children who died after taking part in dangerous online challenges.

“There still is academic debate going on about the casual direction of these harms, but these harms are deeply, deeply concerning,” Vikram Bhargava, assistant professor of strategic management and public policy at George Washington University’s School of Business, told WTOP.

“Some suggest that maybe it’s not that social media is causing these mental health concerns,” Bhargava added. “It could be that people with these concerns happen to be disposed to using social media.”

However, he said the platforms do encourage continued engagement.

Bhargava made a comparison to tobacco and its addictiveness, but he said there’s a difference between tobacco and social media platforms. Social media is designed to increase user engagement, so the “potency” increases with each use.

“It’s as though every time you smoke a cigarette, it increases in nicotine content,” he added.

Among the concerns outlined in some of the legislation in the Maryland General Assembly was the collection of data on children’s internet use.

Bhargava likens that to heading to a coffee shop, only to have the barista collect the cup you were using, swab the lip of that cup, and sent it off to a lab, “so that they can learn a little bit more about the biological properties that incline you towards addiction.”

At the same time, Bhargava said there are “all sorts of legitimate reasons that people have to be on these platforms that we regard as laudatory reasons.” For example, he said, they can be used as a way to stay engaged with one’s community, and they can even lead to actual engagements.

“I’ve been to about nine weddings in the last three years,” said Bhargava. “Eight out of the nine people met their partners on online dating apps.”

Bhargava doesn’t take a position on the legislation before Maryland lawmakers, but he does say concerns about overregulating the tech industry should be taken seriously.

But he says being online has become normal for children.

“It does seem prudent for us to be at least paying attention to some constraints on how these platforms are treating the users,” Bhargava said.

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Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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