In my role as director of policy and advocacy at Mental Health America, I have ongoing opportunities to lead annual policy meetings on prevention and early intervention of mental health conditions – some of which I have dealt with firsthand since middle school. Since the COVID-19 public health emergency, we have spent a great deal of time advocating for the public health response to include addressing mental health concerns – which are routinely excluded even though data shows schizophrenia was the number one co-occurring condition in people who died from COVID-19, higher than asthma, obesity, and cardio conditions.
At our 2023 National Policy Institute (held right before the start of our Annual Conference in early June), we went back to youth-focused discussions. Mental health condition signs manifest by age 14 in 50% of people who end up developing them, yet, on average, 12 years go by before individuals connect to services. With Gen Z in the middle of a pandemic, ongoing violence, and digital connectivity, this year was all about Tweens, Teens, and Technology. We discussed the internet and technology's impact on youth mental health and substance use based on research by the National Institute on Drug Abuse director Dr. Nora Volkow and several psychologists who conduct annual studies on youth and media, including Dr. Yalda Tehranian-Uhls of Scholars and Storytellers and Monica Anderson of the Pew Research Center.
We highlighted which technology policies currently in front of Congress will help address harms. While 1 in 3 internet users is under age 18, California is the only state to enact an Age Appropriate Design Code Law (similar to the United Kingdom law by 5Rights Foundation) to ensure youth are not exploited and targeted online. No congressional action in the U.S. has been taken to hold technology companies accountable for social media harms even though youth report spending over eight hours a day on social media. In fact, much of the over $70 billion in revenue generated by Meta in 2020 can be attributed to advertisements to youth. The Senate Commerce Committee has previously taken up the Kids Online Safety Act, the closest bill we have to a national framework alongside the Children and Teens' Online Privacy Protection Act, but has not yet done so in the 118th Congress.
Recently, the Federal Trade Commission renewed and expanded its order to provide for “Blanket Prohibition Preventing Facebook from Monetizing Youth Data.” And, last year Congress funded a Center of Excellence for Adolescent Social Media Use. We greatly appreciate having its co-director Dr. Megan Moreno join the policy institute as a speaker alongside Haley Hinkle, policy counsel of Fairplay, and Alison Rice the youth initiatives campaign manager at Accountable Tech. MHA was honored to also highlight the work of Amelia Vance, chief counsel for The School Superintendents Association, Fred Dillion, head of advisory services at Hopelab, Dr. Erlanger Turner of Pepperdine University, and Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer of American Psychological Association.
We applaud the decades of work by these researchers and advocates in child online safety and privacy and call on Congress to heed the U.S. Surgeon General's recommendations on Social Media and Youth Mental Health and enact a national standard to ensure online media protects youth from harm and encourages healthy exploration of topics and help-seeking behavior. Read the many reports by these leaders in the policy institute meeting agenda and watch the program here.