Major Psychologists’ Group Warns of Social Media’s Potential Harm To Kids

For the first time, the American Psychological Association (APA) has issued guidelines for teenagers, parents, teachers and policymakers on how to use social media, with the aim of reducing the rate of depression, anxiety and loneliness in adolescents. NPR reports: The 10 recommendations in the report summarize recent scientific findings and advise actions, primarily by parents, such as monitoring teens’ feeds and training them in social media literacy, even before they begin using these platforms. But some therapists and clinicians say the recommendations place too much of the burden on parents. To implement this guidance requires cooperation from the tech companies and possibly regulators.

While social media can provide opportunities for staying connected, especially during periods of social isolation, like the pandemic, the APA says adolescents should be routinely screened for signs of “problematic social media use.” The APA recommends that parents should also closely monitor their children’s social media feed during early adolescence, roughly ages 10-14. Parents should try to minimize or stop the dangerous content their child is exposed to, including posts related to suicide, self-harm, disordered eating, racism and bullying. Studies suggest that exposure to this type of content may promote similar behavior in some youth, the APA notes.

Another key recommendation is to limit the use of social media for comparison, particularly around beauty — or appearance-related content. Research suggests that when kids use social media to pore over their own and others’ appearance online, this is linked with poor body image and depressive symptoms, particularly among girls. As kids age and gain digital literacy skills they should have more privacy and autonomy in their social media use, but parents should always keep an open dialogue about what they are doing online. The report also cautions parents to monitor their own social media use, citing research that shows that adults’ attitudes toward social media and how they use it in front of kids may affect young people.

The APA’s report does contain recommendations that could be picked up by policy makers seeking to regulate the industry. For instance it recommends the creation of “reporting structures” to identify and remove or deprioritize social media content depicting “illegal or psychologically maladaptive behavior,” such as self-harm, harming others, and disordered eating. It also notes that the design of social media platforms may need to be changed to take into account “youths’ development capabilities,” including features like endless scrolling and recommended content. It suggests that teens should be warned “explicitly and repeatedly” about how their personal data could be stored, shared and used.

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Can Consumers Break Free of the Tech Industry’s Hold on Their Messaging History?

The Washington Post reports on “a relatively young app called Beeper that pulls all your chats into one place.” This is significant, the Post argues, because “we’re better off if we have the freedom to pick up our digital lives and move on. Tech companies should feel terrified that you’ll walk if they disappoint you…”

If different people send you messages in Apple’s Messages (a.k.a., iMessage), WhatsApp, LinkedIn and Slack, you don’t have to check multiple apps to read and reply. Maybe the best promise of Beeper is that you can ditch your iPhone or Samsung phone for another company’s device and keep your text messages…

Eric Migicovsky, Beeper’s co-founder, told me that if you’re pulling Apple Messages into Beeper, you need a Mac computer to upload a digital file. All chat apps have different limits on how much history you can access in the app.

There’s also a wait list of about 170,000 people for Beeper. (Add yourself to the list here.) The app is free, but Beeper says it will start charging for a version with extra features.

To put this all in context, the Post’s reporter remembers the hassle of using a cable to transfer a long history of iPhone messages to a new Google Pixel phone, complaining that Apple makes it more difficult than other companies to switch to a different kind of system. “Many of you are happy to live in Apple’s world. Great! But if you want the option to leave at some point, try to limit your use of Apple apps when possible…”

They look ahead to next year, when the EU “will require large tech companies to make their products compatible with those of competitors” — though it’s not clear how much change that will bring. In the meantime, the existence of a small company like Beeper “gives me hope that we don’t have to rely on the kindness of technology giants to make it easier to move to a different phone or computer system… You deserve the option of a no-hassle tech divorce at a moment’s notice.”

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Instagram Co-Founders Launch Personalized News App ‘Artifact’

Artifact, the personalized news reader built by Instagram’s co-founders, is now open to the public, no sign-up required. TechCrunch reports: With today’s launch, Artifact is dropping its waitlist and phone number requirements, introducing the app’s first social feature and adding feedback controls to better personalize the news reading experience, among other changes. […] With today’s launch, Artifact will now give users more visibility into their news reading habits with a newly added stats feature that shows you the categories you’ve read as well as the recent articles you read within those categories, plus the publishers you’ve been reading the most. But it will also group your reading more narrowly by specific topics. In other words, instead of just “tech” or “AI,” you might find you’ve read a lot about the topic “ChatGPT,” specifically.

In time, Artifact’s goal is to provide tools that would allow readers to click a button to show more or less from a given topic to better control, personalize and diversify their feed. In the meantime, however, users can delve into settings to manage their interests by blocking or pausing publishers or selecting and unselecting general interest categories. Also new today is a feature that allows you to upload your contacts in order to see a signal that a particular article is popular in your network. This is slightly different from Twitter’s Top Articles feature, which shows you articles popular with the people you follow, because Artifact’s feature is more privacy-focused.

“It doesn’t tell you who read it. It doesn’t tell you how many of them read it, so it keeps privacy — and we clearly don’t do it with just one read. So you can’t have one contact and like figure out what that one contact is reading … it has to meet a certain minimum threshold,” notes [Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom]. This way, he adds, the app isn’t driven by what your friends are reading, but it can use that as a signal to highlight items that everyone was reading. In time, the broader goal is to expand the social experience to also include a way to discuss the news articles within Artifact itself. The beta version, limited to testers, offers a Discover feed where users can share articles and like and comment on those shared by others. There’s a bit of a News Feed or even Instagram-like quality to engaging with news in this way, we found.

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TikTok Unveils New US-Based ‘Transparency and Accountability Center’

The Verge was part of “a handful” of journalists invited to Los Angeles to tour TikTok’s new “Transparency and Accountability Center…. part of a multi-week press blitz by TikTok to push Project Texas, a novel proposal to the US government that would partition off American user data in lieu of a complete ban.”
TikTok says it has already taken thousands of people and over $1.5 billion to create Project Texas. The effort involves TikTok creating a separate legal entity dubbed USDS with an independent board from ByteDance that reports directly to the US government. More than seven outside auditors, including Oracle, will review all data that flows in and out of the US version of TikTok. Only American user data will be available to train the algorithm in the US, and TikTok says there will be strict compliance requirements for any internal access to US data. If the proposal is approved by the government, it will cost TikTok an estimated $700 million to $1 billion per year to maintain…..
At one point during the tour, I tried asking what would hypothetically happen if, once Project Texas is greenlit, a Bytedance employee in China makes an uncomfortable request to an employee in TikTok’s US entity. I was quickly told by a member of TikTok’s PR team that the question wasn’t appropriate for the tour.

Other notes from the tour:

The journalists weren’t allowed to enter a special server room “housing the app’s source code for outside auditors to review.”

A room that explained TikTok’s algorithm using iMacs running “code simulators” was “frustratingly vague”

“Despite it being called a transparency center, TikTok’s PR department made everyone agree to not quote or directly attribute comments made by employees leading the tour.”

The Verge ultimately concludes TikTok’s Transparency and Accountability Center is “a lot of smoke and mirrors designed to give the impression that it really cares.”

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FBI Probes Snapchat’s Role In Fentanyl Poisoning Deaths

Federal agencies are questioning Snapchat’s role in the spread and sale of fentanyl-laced pills in the United States as part of a broader probe into the deadly counterfeit drugs crisis. The Los Angeles Times reports: FBI agents and Justice Department attorneys are zeroing in on fentanyl poisoning cases where the sales were arranged to young buyers via Snapchat […]. The agents have interviewed parents of children who died and are working to access their social media accounts to trace the suppliers of the lethal drugs, according to the people. In many cases, subpoenaed records from Snapchat have shown that the teenagers thought they were buying prescription painkillers, but the pill they swallowed was pure fentanyl — a synthetic opioid 100 times more potent than morphine.

On Wednesday, the involvement of technology companies in the ongoing fentanyl crisis will be discussed on Capitol Hill at a House Energy and Commerce Committee roundtable. One of the listed speakers, Laura Marquez-Garrett, an attorney with the Social Media Victims Law Center, said Snapchat will be the focus. “The death of American children by fentanyl poisoning is not a social media issue — it’s a Snapchat issue,” she said. […] While dealers use many social media platforms to advertise their drugs, experts, lawyers and families say Snapchat is the platform of choice for arranging sales. Dealers prefer to use Snapchat because of its encrypted technology and disappearing messages — features that have given the platform an edge over its rivals for fully legitimate reasons and helped it become one of the world’s most popular social media apps for teens.

Former White House drug czar Jim Carroll said drug traffickers are always going to flock to where the young people are. “From everything I have read, I do believe that Snapchat has been more widely used for facilitating drug sales,” than other platforms, said Carroll, who serves on Snap’s safety advisory council and now works for Michael Best Consulting. “I think that’s because of its popularity among the young.” In December, Snap reported 363 million daily active users in its quarterly earnings report. That same month, the National Crime Prevention Council wrote a letter to Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland, urging the Justice Department to investigate Snap and its business practices. “Snapchat has become a digital open-air drug market allowing drug dealers to market and to sell fake pills to unsuspecting tweens and teens,” the letter said. Garland didn’t respond, but federal investigators have started to ask questions, multiple people said. Santa Monica-based Snap, which makes Snapchat, said it has worked with law enforcement for years to clamp down on illegal activity on its platform and has boosted moderation efforts to detect illegal drug sales. Last year, Snap said it removed more than 400,000 user accounts that posted drug-related content.

“We are committed to doing our part to fight the national fentanyl poisoning crisis, which includes using cutting-edge technology to help us proactively find and shut down drug dealers’ accounts,” Rachel Racusen, a Snap spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement.

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Many People Aren’t Sticking Around Mastodon

The number of active users on the Mastodon social network has dropped more than 30% since the peak and is continuing a slow decline, according to the latest data posted on its website. There were about 1.8 million active users in the first week of January, down from over 2.5 million in early December. The Guardian reports: Mastodon, an open-source network of largely independently hosted servers, has often been touted as an alternative to Twitter. And its growth appears connected to controversies at Twitter. But for many it doesn’t fulfill the role that Twitter did and experts say it may be too complicated to really replace it. […]

There were about 500,000 active Mastodon users before Elon Musk took control of Twitter at the end of October. By mid-November, that number climbed to almost 2 million active users. […] The surge in new Mastodon users continued throughout November, peaking at over 130,000 new users a day. The upticks often coincided with controversial decisions made by Elon Musk. Data from Google suggests there was also a surge in searches for Mastodon in April 2022, around the time Musk announced he had become Twitter’s largest shareholder.

“Twitter, in its most basic form is simple,” Meg Coffey, a social media strategist, said. “You can open up an app or open up a website, type some words, and you’re done. I mean, it was [a] basic SMS platform.” For many, Mastodon may have proved too hard to port over their communities and was just too complicated. Some may have gone back to Twitter, while others, said Coffey, may have dropped social media entirely. “Everybody went and signed up [on Mastodon] and realized how hard it was, and then got back on Twitter and were like, ‘Oh, that’s, that’s hard. Maybe we won’t go there,'” she said. “It’s like the people that said ‘I’m moving to Canada’ when Donald Trump was elected,” Coffey added. “They never actually moved to Canada.”

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Mastodon Continues to Grow – But Still .27% the Size of Twitter

By Tuesday morning Mastodon had gained 123,562 new users since October 27 (the site told TechCrunch) and had 528,607 active users. But by Saturday the number of new users had nearly doubled, to 230,000, reports CNN — with 655,000 active users.

In fact, for every 363 active users on Twitter, there’s now one on Mastodon, CNN’s figures suggest (since Twitter has nearly “238 million daily active monetizable users”). Exploring the recent spike, they note that Mastodon “has a similar look to Twitter, with a timeline of short updates sorted chronologically rather than algorithmically. It lets users join a slew of different servers run by various groups and individuals, rather than one central platform controlled by a single company like Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.”

Unlike larger social networks, Mastodon is both free to use and free of ads. It’s operated by a nonprofit run by Mastodon creator Eugen Rochko, and is supported via crowdfunding… “It is not as large as Twitter, obviously, but it is the biggest that this network has ever been,” said Rochko, who originally created Mastodon as more of a project than a consumer product (and, yes, its name was inspired by the heavy metal band Mastodon)….

A lot of Mastodon’s features and layout (particularly in its iOS app) will look and feel familiar to current Twitter users, though with some slightly different verbiage; you can follow others, create short posts (there’s a 500 character limit, and you can upload images and videos), favorite or repost other users’ posts, and so on…. There are some key differences, particularly in how the network is set up. Because Mastodon users’ accounts are hosted on a slew of different servers, the costs of hosting users is spread among many different people and groups. But that also means users are spread out all over the place, and people you know can be hard to find.

CNN also notes the problem with signing up for a Mastodon server: “some of which are open to anyone, some of which require an invitation (you can also run your own server). There is a server operated by the nonprofit behind Mastodon,, but it’s not accepting more users.”

Although trending on the server I found today: #Caturday photos.

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