Dáil debates

Wednesday, 21 September 2022

Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022: Second Stage


4:37 pm

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity) | Oireachtas source

I am opposed to the self-regulatory model for the online tech giants. Therefore, I welcome this legislation as a step forward, however small. There are important issues around finding the best balance between preventing harmful content and the protection of free speech. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has raised important issues in that regard.

In this contribution, I would like to discuss the impact of social media and other online platforms on mental health. This legislation defines one type of online harm as “a risk of significant harm to a person’s physical or mental health, where the harm is reasonably foreseeable.” There should be no space whatsoever for online content that is abusive and damaging to people.

What about algorithms that promote and expose young people to such posts? The creators of such algorithms may even be aware of their harmful impact but continue to allow them to run because they have demonstrated themselves to be profitable. Such algorithms can create and promote unrealistic expectations. Their interfaces are designed to be as addictive as possible to keep people coming back. I am talking, for instance, about last year’s Facebook leaks, which revealed that Facebook, now called Meta, the parent company of Instagram, had commissioned internal reports that showed the harmful mental health impact of their algorithms on young people. One internal Meta presentation stated that among teenagers who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British teens and 6% of American teens traced the issue to Instagram. Some 32% of teenage girls surveyed said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse. The research found 14% of young boys in the US said Instagram made them feel worse about themselves. More than 40% of Instagram’s 1.2 billion monthly users are 22 years of age or under. Social media websites are constructed in this way not because it is the easiest or cheapest way but because it is the most profitable way, maximising time spent on these websites – engagement - and, of course, advertising revenue.

At the same time as this internal report was produced, Meta's pre-tax profits in Ireland were €890 million. Globally, the company's revenue for this quarter alone is expected to be nearly $30 billion. We have a situation where multibillion-euro companies are allowed to operate in a way that their own research shows is actively harmful to the mental health of young people.

There is a huge positive potential that social technologies can offer in terms of communication and the interconnection of society. However, it has been clearly demonstrated that we cannot trust these corporations to use these technologies in the best interest of society. These massive corporations are actively and knowingly harming the mental health of young people. They need to be taken out of the hands of the tech billionaires and run on a not-for-profit basis. How that would be done precisely or in more detail is an issue that I will return to in the future.


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