Sullivan suggests US could protect teens from Facebook with Chinese-style screen-time mandates

Sen. Dan Sullivan at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in January. The committee has held two hearings in as many weeks to discuss Facebook’s impact on teens’ mental health (Still from U.S. Senate video)

While Congress debates the harm Facebook does to kids, Alaska U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan suggests the federal government should borrow an idea from the Chinese regime and impose limits on screen time.

“I personally believe that we’re going to look back, like 20 years from now, and see the massive social, mental health challenges that were created by this era when teenagers had phones in their faces, starting in seventh and eighth grade and continuing,” Sullivan said at a recent Senate hearing about Facebook. “And we’re going to look back and we’re going to go, ‘What in the hell were we thinking?’”

The Chinese government has imposed tighter time limits for minors to play online video games, the New York Times and other news outlets reported in August. The new limit amounts to three hours a week. China has also cracked down on celebrity fan sites.

Sullivan, at a hearing last week, said he doesn’t usually agree with the Chinese Communist Party, but he thinks they’re on to something.

“Maybe it might be the one time where we say, ‘Why didn’t we, like the Chinese Communist Party, say, ‘Take a break?’” Sullivan said.

At a Senate hearing Tuesday, a Facebook whistleblower discussed documents she leaked showing the social media company knows its apps amplify misinformation and that Instagram, in particular, damages the mental health of girls.

Sullivan suggested to her that Facebook doesn’t want to impose time limits for young people because it would hurt profits. He said much the same at a hearing last week, where he confronted Facebook Head of Safety Antigone Davis.

“Can you really, on your own, help people take a break?” Sullivan asked. “Or do we, the U.S. government, have to help people take a break, like the Chinese are doing right now?”

Davis said that as a parent, she wants to determine how much time her child spends online, rather than have the government decide.

Sullivan’s endorsement of a Chinese-style screen-time mandate caught the attention of the Chamber of Progress, a tech industry advocacy group whose sponsors include Facebook.

The CEO of the group, Adam Kovacevich, said Sullivan’s proposal is out of touch.

“Parents are looking for real help from policymakers about how to make social media safe and healthy for kids,” he said in an email, “and turning to authoritarian measures like this is a little unhinged.”

A spokesman for Sullivan said the proposal was offered to highlight the need for Facebook to make its products safer for users.

Alaska Public Media

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