Last week Francis Haugen, a former Facebook employee, revealed documents attesting to the dreadful impact of the platform’s algorithms on teenage mental health. Pirate Party MP Sven Clement gives us his interpretation of Facebook’s strategy and looks at what the government is doing, or not doing, to address teenage mental health issues related to social media use and gaming.
The revelations on Facebook were no surprise to the MP. “A lot has been insinuated over the last years and months, and it clearly shows that Facebook is part of the problem and very little a part of the solution,” he argues. “It's trying to use the addictive behaviour to keep people on the platform and knowing that young people are using the platform less and less, they are now using even more aggressive tactics and downplaying the impact by phony statistics and phony research.”
It's very important to simply be aware that Facebook is not an active player when it comes to child mental health issues.
A 2018 World Health Organization collaborative cross-national study suggests that 40.1% of Luxembourg teenagers have complained of suffering some form of mental issues. “I think that it's very important to simply be aware that Facebook is not an active player when it comes to child mental health issues,” Clement says. “It's just one more proof that Facebook and co is trying with all market force to keep people on the platform. It is what any other monopolistic giant would do in their place. The problem might not be Facebook, the problem might be that we have created an internet where monopolistic behaviour is being rewarded.”
Clement has long argued for the breakup of tech giants and did so again following the outage of Facebook and its associated apps on 4 October. “What we need is more diversity, with smaller platforms that are interoperable, where people can switch from one platform to the other without having the data on them and their friends being collected,” Clement explains. “In Europe, GDPR was trying to address the issues of data portability. So far, I did not yet see any impact of it, given that platforms are still being rewarded for their monopolistic behaviour. My position, politically speaking, is to break up Facebook. We can't have a conglomerate controlling Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp at the same time using the data they have on users to make people addicted to their platforms.”
A 2020 European Parliament study found that teenage internet users tend to develop gaming disorders. The pandemic, with teenagers in home-schooling, clearly made the situation worse.
At some point in my life, I was addicted to computer games…
More recently, a 2021 JMIR Serious Games study associates loneliness (during lockdowns) with excessive and pathological gaming behaviours across different age and sex groups. Primary school students were at a higher risk of excessive and pathological gaming behaviours, which translated into increased depression and anxiety. Online gaming became for many the coping strategy for maintaining social connection and dealing with adverse emotional experiences. China, as well as South Korea, recently added stricter rules for gaming. What is Clement’s take on these measures? Could he see such measures being applied in Luxembourg?
“I think when it comes to gaming addiction and mental health among young people, we should not only look at social media platforms, but we should also look at the gaming industry at large. Nowadays, games use concepts like loot boxes, which have been proved to be highly addictive, and research shows that they lead to gambling disorders, regardless of the age of the player,” Clement replies. He even has personal testimony. “At some point in my life, I was addicted to computer games, and that is maybe one of the secrets less publicised about me. So, I don't want to downplay the role of games and addiction it's definitely an issue.”
However, the MP stops short of linking the problem solely to homeschooling. “This is certainly an aspect that aggravated the problem, as people had to look for outlets to keep them occupied. Even healthy human children need to be occupied, so I understand where it came from. The Luxembourg government, up till now, is not really acknowledging the risk of loot boxes and gaming disorders. I tried to raise the issue in parliament a few times over the last three years.”
He explains that the UK parliament has a Gambling Industry Committee inquiring into the social and economic impact of the gambling industry. Luxembourg didn't even budge on the question of whether we should regulate access to loot boxes. “Regarding child protection, we would need to ban games that use loot boxes, or to strictly regulate how they are being presented to children, and probably to adults too. Luxembourg has legislation regulating casino games, and the Mondorf Casino is very strictly regulated. Why can games exist in an unregulated space, where there are effectively many small online casinos? How come playing a game of soccer FIFA 2022 looks like a casino game of chance leading to gambling addiction? Kids should be able to play soccer on their computers and smartphones and consoles, without it leading to gaming addiction. And I think that's where we need to act.”
I let you judge the impact the two hours of internet-education in the course of a whole school year can have on teenagers
The 2020 EP study shows that prolonged internet use has negative effects on memory, deters analytical thinking, diminishes ability to read, slows information processing and decreases sustained attention. Information overload, i.e. techno-stress, leads to attention deficit disorders, feelings of being overwhelmed, diminished decision-making ability, feelings of loss of control, omission or errors in selecting information and diminished job satisfaction. The ministry of education says it wants to push forward the digitalisation of education. High school students and even students form elementary schools received an iPad for their studies. Is there any plan to ban or restrict access to harmful apps, video games and websites during and after school on these devices?
“As I said, there's very little that the government is doing and the appetite is quite small,” Clement replies. “And I don't believe that most government ministers actually understand the issue at hand here. With no insight into these problems, it is hard to quantify the broader implications and negative impacts of Internet use, social media and online gaming.”
Clement says that there are projects to introduce more classes about media literacy, talking to parents and children. “However, these are quite basic, describing the operation manual and the tools and very little oriented towards what goes on behind the scenes.” he says. “And as long as people don't understand what goes on behind the scenes, it's very difficult to really be literate and take action. BeeSecure are doing a great, great job, but they show up two hours a year in each the classroom. I let you judge the impact the two hours of internet education in the course of a whole school year can have on teenagers.”