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SMASH Project: Marc Berkman Shares Findings with Congress, LAUSD on the Harms of Social Media

June 25, 2024

by Joanie Harmon, posted by UCLA Ed&IS, June 20, 2024

Organization for Social Media Safety CEO and member of UCLA research team testifies to move legislation on accountability for social media platforms; outlines benefits of banning smartphones during the school day.

Marc Berkman, CEO and founder of the Organization for Social Media Safety (OFSMS), recently testified in Congress on the dangers of social media upon adolescent users, with findings from the Social Media and the Spread of Hate (SMASH) Project, an interdisciplinary collaboration between the OFSMS and the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies (SEIS). The SMASH Project, which explores the occurrences and impacts of social media-distributed hate speech on adolescents, as part of the University’s campus-wide Initiative to Study Hate.

Berkman co-founded OFSMS, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit centered on protecting users of social media – especially K-12 students – in 2017. He testified in a Congressional hearing  on June 4 regarding bipartisan draft legislation to sunset Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and Ranking Member Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) are collaborating to encourage Congress and stakeholders to work together over the next 18 months to create and evaluate a new legal framework that allows for free speech and innovation while incentivizing social media companies to take accountability for potential harms for users by their content.

Berkman shared data from the SMASH study of more than 14,000 students in grades 5-12, in more than 60 schools across the United States, gathered during school presentations from January – November 2023. These include:

·      53 percent self-reporting using social media for more than five hours a day; 20 percent spent nine hours

·      46 percent of teens self-reporting being a victim of cyberbullying

·      81 percent reported seeing hate speech via social media, the majority of which was related to race/ethnicity (71%), gender (72%), and/or religious beliefs (62%)

Other social media-related harms that Berkman underlined included drug-related and eating disorder content, as well as sextortion, which has resulted in suicide by several victims.

OFSMS is the first and leading consumer protection organization focused exclusively on social media. Berkman, a former senior staffer in Congress and the California State Assembly, noted in his testimony an acknowledgement by Mark Zuckerberg of Meta’s failure on data privacy, TikTok founder Shou Zi Chew’s statement on concerns around the platform’s security, privacy, and content manipulation; and Snapchat’s inability to safeguard against drug dealers who work around the platform’s detection measures.

“Despite this very clear consensus among its own leaders that severe safety risks to adolescents pervade the industry, big social is not taking sufficient action, and so the harms continue, the mortality count mounts,” said Berkman in his congressional testimony.

“Section 230C has directly facilitated these harms by gutting our carefully thought-out tort law jurisprudence for this industry. We have removed the traditional public policy mechanism that forces all other companies to appropriately consider public safety along with their profit motives when making business decisions. “That is why we must stand in support of Chair Rogers and Ranking Member Pallone’s Section 230 Sunset Discussion Draft.”

Berkman urges all stakeholders to encourage Congress to take this historic step in safeguarding users – especially among them, adolescents –  against the harms of social media.

“Congress is currently considering comprehensive social media safety legislation, including the Kids Online Safety Act and Sammy’s Law, which, for the first time in about 30 years, has a real chance of passing,” says Berkman.  “The Organization for Social Media Safety encourages all students, caregivers, and educators to contact your local member of Congress and give your opinion.  Since almost all of us use social media, your opinion matters and helps ensure Congress gets this crucial legislation right.”

In addition, Berkman shared SMASH Project findings at a meeting of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), at their meeting on June 18. Berkman’s remarks helped to result in the board’s passing of a resolution to ban smartphone use in LAUSD K-12 schools during the school day.

“This resolution is incredibly timely,” said Berkman in his remarks to the LAUSD board. “It was just yesterday that the Surgeon General called for warning labels on social media platforms advising parents that using the platforms might harm adolescents’ mental health. As an organization that works with K-12 schools and hundreds of thousands of families across the country on social media safety – including LAUSD schools and families – the Organization for Social Media Safety knows well that student smartphone use during the school day is leading to significant additional time spent on social media and is negatively impacting learning and campus climate.

“A study conducted among 14-year-olds found that increased social media use was related to poor sleep, harassment, lowered self-esteem, negative body image, and higher rates of depression,” Berkman said. “These findings among many, many others indicate real, ongoing harm from social media, harm that could be substantially mitigated by reducing time on social media. Policymakers globally need to take action to protect our children and we are proud that LAUSD is leading the way.”

Co-led by Wasserman Dean Christina Christie and UCLA Professor of Information Studies Anne Gilliland, the SMASH Project is analyzing data about students’ exposure to hate speech on social media gathered from students at more than 40 schools across the country that are participants in programming by OFSMS. The project will also conduct focus group discussions with students in four Los Angeles schools.

Along with Berkman and OFSMS’ Vice President of Programs Sarah Krongrad, the research team includes Christine Ong, research scientist at the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST); Arif Amlani, SEIS director of new initiatives; and Mark Hansen, SEIS assistant professor-in-residence and research scientist, CRESST. Tyrone Howard, UCLA professor of education, serves as advisor on the project.

To view highlights of Berkman’s testimony before Congress on June 4, visit Instagram.

For a PDF of Berkman’s entire testimony, click here.

This article was posted by UCLA Ed&IS on June 20, 2024.