Teen advocates urge users to 'Log Off' in push for tech reform

Teen advocates urge users to 'Log Off' in push for tech reform
© Courtesy of Emma Lembke/Celine Bernhardt-Lanier

Members of the generation shaped by the rise of social media are now pushing for Congress to combat the dangers faced online by young users.

Anger at social media giants is reaching a boiling point on Capitol Hill as lawmakers demand action from Facebook-owned Instagram after a bombshell report detailed internal research on how the platform harms the mental health of teens.

With the growing congressional scrutiny, Emma Lembke, the 19-year-old behind two youth-led advocacy organizations, says lawmakers need to look to Generation Z for input on regulation.

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“We want to alter this narrative that has been put in place by older members of other generations that teens are passive victims who are just hurt and constantly affected by social media and have no agency whatsoever to remedy the situation. That is absolutely not the situation,” Lembke said in an interview with The Hill.

“While we can’t hold seats in the Senate, we can influence these decisions. We have the power and teens have the ability to use their own stories and their voice to push forth change,” she added.

Lembke is founder and CEO of the Log Off Movement. The advocacy group aims to create a space for teens to discuss the harms of social media and provide resources about scaling back its use.

More recently, the first-year Washington University student launched Tech(nically Politics). The new effort focuses on political advocacy, with organizers collecting stories from teens to share with lawmakers.

“The second I created Log Off and it kind of took off I could see the necessity of having this regular regulatory piece in the puzzle,” Lembke said.

Lembke said teens across the country are invited to share their stories, and the new organization is looking to connect with lawmakers to put teens at the center of the reform conversation.

Social media’s influence on young Americans has been a rare unifying issue in Congress. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have urged Facebook to drop plans to launch a version of Instagram for kids under 13. The company announced Monday it would pause the effort after fierce pushback, but critics want the platform to abandon the plan for good.

During a Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee hearing on data privacy last week, Democrats and Republicans grilled a Facebook executive over the Wall Street Journal report on Instagram and teen mental health that sparked much of the blowback from lawmakers.

Steve Satterfield, Facebook’s vice president of privacy and public policy, sidestepped questions he said were outside of his direct purview, but the fiery session teed up a Senate Commerce Consumer Protection subcommittee hearing set for Thursday where the impact of the photo-sharing app on teen mental health will be the main focus. Facebook’s global head of safety, Antigone Davis, is scheduled to testify at that hearing.

Although Instagram has been facing the brunt of recent criticism, Log Off organizers said Congress needs to take a broader view of the effect social media has on teens — including a closer look at TikTok and its growing popularity with young users. 

“[Facebook and Instagram have] done a lot of things to gain the attention of policymakers, but I think it would be a lost opportunity to not include major players in the industry who are also working in different ways, in the social media landscape, to negatively impact kids and manipulate them,” Lembke said.

Celine Bernhardt-Lanier, the 17-year-old who has taken the reins from Lembke as CEO of Log Off, said she chose to stay off of TikTok entirely after seeing the addictive nature of the app among her friends.

“I see it affecting my generation. I have a friend actually at school who’s used TikTok seven hours a day. And so just knowing that, I just don’t even want to be on that app,” Bernhardt-Lanier said.

“I have a strong sense that we need time well spent, and Instagram for me isn’t getting me that. I try to use social media as little as possible,” she added.

Although Bernhardt-Lanier said she sets boundaries for her social media use, she admits that some days she’ll scroll longer than she intended. Log Off gives teens resources and a space to discuss how to set those barriers for themselves. 

For example, the organization has a Digital Detox Challenge, ranging from three- to 21-day options, that encourages participants to reduce their daily screen time by 50 percent.

“I think there’s such a lack of just being aware of how our devices are impacting us,” especially with the unseen technology driving the platforms, Bernhardt-Lanier said.

“It’s so hard to combat the pull and just the science behind this is so much stronger than your own willingness to stop. It’s a tough process because I know there’s teens out there who want to have these deep conversations and be vulnerable. But I also know that it’s very scary and uncomfortable, and there’s this stigma around talking also about social media and technology and how we interact on these platforms,” she added.

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The way social media platforms are designed, change can’t solely rest on the shoulders of users — especially vulnerable teens — and that is where regulation needs to come into place, according to the youth advocates.

“[It’s] almost virtually impossible to articulate to someone who has not grown up with social media as a piece of their childhood how important it can be and how it can be this medium for self-expression. But with current algorithms in place, that’s not possible,” Lembke said. “And I think it’s working to find out: How can we create apps in a more humane way? How can we really explore regulating these companies in order to regain social media as a tool instead of this addictive piece in our lives?”

There are no immediate plans for Lembke or Bernhardt-Lanier to testify before Congress, but the youth organizers say it would be beneficial for lawmakers to listen to the generation most affected by the platforms and potential reform.  

“Legislators need to really look up to teens because the youth voice and youth activism is so important, because these devices are affecting us the most,” Bernhardt-Lanier said. 

Lembke said proposals such as Sen. Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyBiden likely to tap Robert Califf to return as FDA head Biden faces pressure to pass infrastructure bills before climate summit Senate Democrat says Facebook offers 'crocodile tears about protecting children' MORE’s (D-Mass.) KIDS Act, which he’s planning to reintroduce this year, is a good place to start. The legislation would regulate platforms’ design features, including banning “auto-play” features, and target manipulative marketing online by prohibiting sites from recommending videos that include influencer marketing to kids and teens.

Lembke also said policymakers should look to the United Kingdom, which put in place stricter privacy protections under its new Age Appropriate Design Code, as a guide for regulations.

“It’s super critical that this is viewed in the political landscape through a public health lens. This is not just like, ‘Break up Big Tech, go after these huge companies.’ This is a mental health crisis. Kids are being harmed,” Lembke said.

“There are so many things that are happening to teens that it has created this public health crisis. I think shifting conversations in the political landscape to really hyper focus on that is going to be critical to pushing anything forward,” she added.