Social Media Has Led to a Youth Mental Health Crisis—But Lizzo and Lawmakers Are Fighting Back

The superstar and other organizations are pushing for a bill that aims to make social media a safer place for young people. Meanwhile, YouTube updates its policies on eating disorder content.

Lizzo appears with youth from the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Monica

Andrew Toth and Sarah Arnoff

Now a young adult, Chioma remembers the thrill of getting on social media as a teen a decade ago. Apps like Instagram were just beginning to blow up. But she remembers that the "fun, albeit cringey" ways she would connect with her classmates on the app "masked the true harmful nature" of the platform.

"We would play what we thought were games—exchanging likes for ratings or other valuations on ourselves," she says at a panel discussion hosted by the Dove Self-Esteem Project, in Santa Monica, California.

These so-called games, which seemed innocent enough because Chioma was engaging in them with people she knew, ultimately led the teen to battle an eating disorder. "Through therapy and eating disorder outpatient treatment and learning more about weight stigma and fat liberation, I've just begun to lay the groundwork for understanding how to moderate how social media affects me."

Bailey, who is now a freshman in high school, was even younger than Chioma when she first started using TikTok under a guest account in sixth grade. "I very quickly became addicted to the app," the now high school freshman shares. "You get off the app, and you worry that you missed an update or someone posted a new reel or story, and it's going to go away soon, so you gotta get back to it."

She soon found herself falling down rabbit holes on YouTube. "I started seeing all these influencers who were getting a lot of recognition, and I didn't look like them," the teen shares. "They were people who were mainly skinny and White, and it definitely lowered my self-esteem, and it changed how I felt about myself."

Eating Disorder Content on YouTube

On April 18, 2023, Google-owned YouTube announced it was updating its policies surrounding eating disorder content. The company worked with groups like the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) and Asociación de Lucha contra la Bulimia y la Anorexia (ALUBA) to develop the expand the Community Guidelines they already have in place. YouTube had already been removing videos that glorify or promote eating disorders. But now they're taking their policies a step further.

What's New:

  • Prohibit content that shows behaviors that could be imitated. For example, purging after eating or severely restricting calories. Also banned is weight-based bullying in the context of eating disorders.
  • Age restrictions (for anyone under age 18) on videos that are deemed to show imitable behaviors but in the context of recovery.
  • Panels added to eating disorder-related content that will point users to crisis resources. This will be available to users in nine countries with plans to expand to more countries and in more languages.

Social Media and Self-Esteem

Bailey and Chioma are just two of millions of young people whose well-being has suffered as a result of social media use. In fact, a new survey conducted by the Dove Self-Esteem Project found that social media is harming the mental health of 3 in 5 kids. It's no surprise that 8 in 10 youth mental health specialists say social media is fueling a mental health crisis, according to the survey.

The Dove Self-Esteem Project started in 2004. It's an education campaign to help build body confidence and self-esteem in young people. Now the initiative is adjusting its mission to the changing times by trying to make social media a safer space, especially in terms of body positivity.

They are partnering with Common Sense MediaParentsTogether Action, and superstar Lizzo to help advance the 2023 Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA). It's a bill first written in early 2022 that's set to be reintroduced in the United States Congress. If passed, young people like Chioma and parents are hopeful that regulation could turn the tide for today's kids as well as future generations.

Goals of the Kids Online Safety Act

Authored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal D-Conn., and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., KOSA would require more transparency around social media apps' design and algorithms.

In a press release, Dove explains that KOSA "supports updated design standards, safeguards, and tools that protect kids' overall experiences online, and would limit their exposure to toxic beauty content proven to erode their self-esteem."

Specifically, it would:

  • Disable addictive product features and opt out of algorithmic recommendations.
  • Create a "duty of care" for platforms to "act in the best interests" of minors using their site when it comes to content promoting self-harm, suicide, eating disorders, substance abuse, and sexual exploitation. Platforms would also need to "take reasonable measures in its design and operation of products and services to prevent and mitigate" harm.
  • Require social media platforms to perform an annual independent audit assessing risks to minors.
  • Provide experts access to critical data to foster research regarding harms to the safety and well-being of minors.

Last year, KOSA was met with concern from organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. Both groups supported the overall mission of the legislation, but were unnerved by potential unintended negative repercussions.

"KOSA...requires that parents be notified every time a minor (anyone under the age of 17) registers for an online account and to acknowledge that notification," the groups noted in a December letter sent to Senate Democratic leadership. "Parents must also be given access to information about the privacy and security settings of the accounts their teens use. This lays the foundation for significant parental surveillance of teens' digital communications, which puts already vulnerable youth at greater risk of having their privacy invaded and their access to vital communications technologies revoked. This, in turn, could jeopardize teens' access to mental health services and reproductive health information."

In response, the bill has been revised to clarify particular elements, such as the "duty of care" language. Blumenthal told the Connecticut Mirror that conversations with these concerned parties are "ongoing, intensive, productive." The Senator says they all have common interests and goals, adding they've made some changes to adjust for the groups' concerns. But he said they haven't changed the fundamental substance of the bill.

What Experts Say

KOSA is just one of many initiatives that could begin to make a difference. "There are a number of key civil, privacy, and human rights organizations that are putting forward policy recommendations that can hold the tech industry to rigorous consumer safety and anti-discriminatory standards, such as the Algorithmic Accountability Act and other important bills," points out Safiya Noble, Ph.D., the author of Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism and the director of UCLA's Center on Race & Digital Justice, who also participated in Dove's panel.

Dr. Safiya Noble speaks during the Dove Self-Esteem Project Panel on April 11, 2023
Dr. Safiya Noble speaks during the Dove Self-Esteem Project Panel on April 11, 2023.

Alexis Hunley

Dr. Noble encourages people who want to get involved to support organizations putting forth recommendations and "show up to resoundingly refuse harmful technologies—from school board meetings and local councils to state and federal policy bodies." She also emphasizes how important it is to vote for candidates at all levels of government who have deep knowledge of how tech works, so they can legislate appropriately.

As for what parents currently in the midst of fighting this battle can do, Dr. Noble advises regularly talking to children about the internet. "One of the greatest ways we can protect ourselves is to have clear values of acceptance, compassion, and anti-discrimination," says Dr. Noble. "Becoming literate and actively mindful about racism, sexism, and LGBTQ-phobias is one of the best ways to prepare kids for some of the most harmful comments and media they will witness or experience online. Give children the words and values they need to stand up for the right things."

She also recommends checking out books about how tech is failing us in many ways and how we can stand up for each other in the midst of it. A great place to start, according to Noble, is UCLA's Center for Critical Internet Inquiry's roundup of Essential Books by Black Scholars on Science, Technology, Society, and Race.

The Positive Side of Social Media

Throughout Dove's live event, panelists and participants spoke about the silver lining of social media for young people. As Lizzo points out in a press release, "Social media is supposed to be a place where people can express themselves and be a source for beauty confidence, not anxiety." But in order to emphasize the good and minimize the harm, she noted "platforms [need] do more to make social media safe for young people."

At the event in Santa Monica, Lizzo urged the crowd to repeat her mantra: "I control social media. Social media does not control me."


I control social media. Social media does not control me.

— Lizzo

It's something both Chioma and Bailey are already well on their way to mastering. After previously comparing herself to influencers on YouTube, Bailey says she's now able to see that her body is "built a different way from theirs, so it's not realistic for me to compare myself to them." She has also gravitated to DIY, baking, and cooking videos. "That's definitely made me feel happier on social media," notes the teen. "I get off and I'm like, 'Oh, I'm going to try a new recipe' or 'I'm going to add this to my movies to watch list.'"

Her new relationship with the platforms has inspired her to look forward to a future in which "social media, at its best, would be a diverse and inclusive space where everyone would feel welcome and open to be who they are."

Chioma agrees that social media can be a force for good. "I often refer to social media as a highlight reel," she explains. "I truly believe everyone deserves a highlight reel. But how can I interact with social media in a better way? I make sure I'm following companies and people who value the same things I value as well as not using any body-altering apps, and I'm working on general media literacy." In turn, she's bolstered her mental health.

But the onus is not only on young people to guard their well-being. As Dr. Noble puts it, parents "can and should demand liability and responsibility for unsafe tech products."

If you want to get involved, learn more and sign the petition to pass the Kids Online Safety Act on Dove's website.

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