Social Media and Teen Suicide: A New Paradigm for Regulation

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By Jacqueline Mitchell, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Yuri Quintana, PhD, HRI Senior Scientist, believes in the power of technology. While there’s little debate that social media has the potential to cause great harm, Quintana – who is chief of the Division of Clinical InformaticsBeth Israel Deaconess Medical Center – notes there’s a growing body of evidence that social media can also be beneficial.

“Social media can be anonymous and non-judgmental for sharing experiences and getting peer support from others dealing with similar conditions,” said Quintana, who is also an assistant professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. “But, there are also potential dangers that can lead some to self-harm and we need to understand how to safeguard people, particularly young children.”

To Quintana, the question is not whether the technology is good or bad, but why the industry – alone among all others – is allowed to regulate itself. “Even Mark Zuckerberg has gone on record that new regulatory paradigms are needed,” Quintana said.

Quintana has developed award-winning apps – including what he calls “serious games” – that are designed to improve healthcare delivery. His work focuses on the use of digital technologies to facilitate communication between care providers, patients and their families, monitor mental health or share best practices across healthcare organizations around the world.

Quintana’s innovations – essentially digital therapeutic devices – are poised to do dramatic good; yet, like any new treatment or therapy, they are subject to rigorous trials and governmental and institutional oversight before they can be unleashed on healthcare consumers. “Yet, social media platforms remain entirely unregulated,” Quintana said.

Quintana and colleague Eric Perakslis, PhD, chief science and digital officer at Duke University School of Medicine, have written a position paper urging change to how harmful content is reviewed and removed.

“We know social media is addictive and can isolate users from their families, and we know it can radicalize susceptible people towards mass violence,” Quintana said. “The core challenge is that addiction and behavioral influence are the social media business model. Accountable content moderation is needed, with steep fines and loss of revenue for harmful content.”

However, government efforts at content moderation on social media platforms tend to be seen in the United States as potential infringements on the first amendment. Quintana offers a unique solution: regulate social media as a digital therapeutic, similar to the way drugs and medical devices are regulated.

Under their proposed plan, social media companies would be required to collect and share detailed safety data about their products. Consumers and health providers would be able to officially report incidents of harmful content and adverse effects, which government regulators would investigate, similar to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s Adverse Events Reporting System.   

Finally, they suggest that social media companies should partner with governments and NGOs to actively combat the global twin epidemics of depression and suicide.  

“We have spent billions bailing out banks,” Quintana concludes. “Why can we not spend billions saving our children?”