With broadband set to expand across Alaska, Sullivan calls for regulation of social media, ‘big tech’

Murthy and Sullivan listen to a speaker at the June 26, 2023, mental health roundtable held at the University of Alaska Anchorage. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Alaska will receive $1 billion in federal funding for affordable, high-speed Internet service, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced Monday. Nearly 90,000 homes and small businesses in the state lack access to a high-speed connection, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Sen. Dan Sullivan highlighted the announcement at a press conference with U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, where they urged action and awareness about the nation’s youth mental health crisis. Sullivan said that as Internet access expands, there is a need for policies to protect Alaska youth from adverse mental effects from social media.

“How that’s done, and the safeguards we need to put on social media, it needs to happen. It needs to happen on the national level. There’s a growing bipartisan consensus for the need to do that,” he said.

The money is part of the Biden-Harris administration’s “Internet for All” initiative, which makes $42 billion available nationwide through a broadband equity program.

Sen. Sullivan said the surgeon general’s recent report on the connection between social media and adverse mental health outcomes shows that social media and “big tech” need to be regulated more strictly at the national level.

“They’re not being transparent with their data,” he said. “Can you imagine any other company in America saying, ‘Sorry, we have data that may or may not show that what we’re doing is harming kids, but we’re not going to give it to you.’”

He hinted at future policy changes to address that: “Well, I think you’re going to see some laws here soon saying, ‘No, damn it, you are going to give it to us,’” he said.

Sullivan suggested there may be a bill or bills that would limit social media to users aged 16 and older, which social media companies would be called on to enforce. Currently, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule stipulates that social media users should be 13 years old, and Sullivan said that isn’t well enforced.

He said Alaskans can’t be sure that social media is safe for their kids and suggested he’d rather go too far with regulations than not far enough: “If we overshoot, well, we’re overshooting with regards to protecting our youth,” he said.

Dr. Murthy called youth mental health the defining mental health issue of our time.

“For many of our kids, social media has not been a positive influence in their life,” he said. “When kids are spending three hours or more on social media, they face double the risk of experiencing depression and anxiety symptoms.”

He said his main concern was exposure to harmful content and the impact of constant online comparisons on self esteem.

This story originally appeared in the Alaska Beacon and is republished here with permission.

Alaska Beacon

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: info@alaskabeacon.com. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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