The nation’s second-largest teachers union said Thursday it was losing patience with social media apps that it says are contributing to mental health problems and misbehavior in classrooms nationwide, draining time and money from teachers and school systems.
The American Federation of Teachers issued a report with several other organizations, warning that tech companies should rein in their apps before Congress forces them to do so. The federation has 1.7 million members.
The report comes at a time of heightened concern about the impact of social media on children and teenagers. In May, the U.S. surgeon general warned that social media use is a main contributor to depression, anxiety and other mental health problems, and more than 100 school districts and government entities have sued the companies behind apps such as TikTok and Instagram because of the associated problems.
Congress is also considering a crackdown, with several bills introduced this year to regulate social media use, including a proposal to ban children under 13 from social media entirely.
Federation President Randi Weingarten said in an interview with NBC News that teachers’ jobs are now much more difficult because of social media apps.
“When a young person becomes despondent because they’ve been sent all sorts of images about body weight, that young adolescent brings that to school,” she said.
“There is a challenge in terms of well-being and behavior in the classroom, and a teacher doesn’t have at the ready a counselor or a social worker that they can go to,” Weingarten said. “The teacher is supposed to be teaching the class.”
The report does not single out a specific social media app. Instead, it makes a series of recommendations that the federation says all companies should adopt, including stopping phone notifications during the school day, eliminating the autoplay of videos and the infinite scrolling of feeds, and allowing students the choice to turn off or reset recommendation algorithms.
“We really tried to come up with things that they could do immediately,” said Weingarten, a top ally of the Biden White House.
The report is the first of its kind from the federation, though it has been outspoken about social media’s impact on children, supporting an unsuccessful shareholder resolution at Meta’s annual meeting last year.
Internal researchers at Instagram repeatedly found in recent years that the app is harmful to a sizable percentage of young users, especially teenage girls, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2021, citing documents leaked by company whistleblower Frances Haugen.
Since then, Instagram and its parent company, Meta, have announced a series of changes including age verification for Instagram, increased parental supervision on the app Messenger, and a plan for parent-managed accounts for children ages 10 to 12.
But tech companies have pushed back against the harshest of the criticism, noting that science hasn’t made a direct causal link between the rise of social media and the decline in youth mental health. May’s surgeon general advisory struck a somewhat balanced note, saying that social media had both positive and negative effects and that more research was needed.
A Pew Research survey last year found a complicated relationship between teenagers and social media. Asked to describe social media’s effect on them personally, 32% said it had been mostly positive and 9% said it was mostly negative. But asked to describe its effect on people their age, the result flipped: 24% said mostly positive and 32% mostly negative.
The federation's report lists some of the costs that it says have fallen on the shoulders of teachers and schools: hiring additional mental health counselors, educating students about the dangers of social media, time spent confiscating phones and addressing bullying related to social media, and investigations of hoaxes that spread through social media.
School systems led by Seattle’s system have sued the companies behind Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube in connection with their alleged role in the youth mental health crisis, and those suits are pending in federal court in Northern California. The companies said in responses to the suits that they were taking steps to make their products safer.
Weingarten said she wishes the lawsuits weren’t necessary.
“The sad piece here is that these school systems had to resort to suing the social media companies to get them to stop,” she said.
The federation put out the report with several other organizations that have criticized the impact of social media: the American Psychological Association, Design It For Us, Fairplay and ParentsTogether.
Ailen Arreaza, executive director of ParentsTogether, a family advocacy nonprofit group, said parents, students and teachers can’t address the problems of social media by themselves.
“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,” she said in a statement.