The real social media crisis: Teen mental health, not Hunter Biden's laptop

While House Republicans chase Twitter conspiracy theories, social media drives a serious mental health crisis

By Rae Hodge

Staff Reporter

Published February 14, 2023 9:00AM (EST)

Jim Jordan, James Comer and Hunter Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Jim Jordan, James Comer and Hunter Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Teen girls are facing record levels of sexual violence and suicide risk as online harassment and bullying trends persist, according to a damning new survey from the Centers for Disease Control. Meanwhile, data brokers are buying and selling patient mental health data with nearly zero oversight — putting kids' privacy at greater risk as AI-enabled tools outpace federal regulation, and drive new and disturbing forms of online harassment.

With mounting pressure to act, both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate hope to craft new legislation to tackle threats to kids' online privacy and rein in the risks to mental health posed by social media. (Whether the Senate is remotely equipped to address such a thorny subject, rife with both privacy and free speech concerns, is a different question.) Their counterparts in the GOP-led House, however, have been busy — but not with anything related to the present-tense well-being of America's young people. Instead, the Oversight Committee continues its relentless crusade against former Twitter executives over the site's short-lived efforts to block circulation of a New York Post story about Hunter Biden's laptop. 

Social media and mental health

The CDC's findings echo the repeated warnings of previous research on the negative impact of social media on children's mental health, and also reflect advocacy group warnings on the rise of child exploitation material across social platforms. The CDC reported that nearly one in five teen girls suffered sexual violence in the past year, while a record 30% considered suicide and 20% were bullied online.

A February report from the White House on mental health research priorities also spotlights the role of social media — not only as an arena where harm can happen, but as a primary way to reach at-risk kids and get resources in their hands. In a Jan. 29 appearance on CNN, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy drew attention to the role of social media in young teens' developing mental health.

"I, personally, based on the data I've seen, believe that 13 is too early" for extensive social media engagement, Murthy said. "It's a time where it's really important for us to be thoughtful about what's going into how they think about their own self-worth and their relationships and the skewed and often distorted environment of social media often does a disservice to many of those children."

Both reports offer context to President Biden's remarks in his State of the Union address, promising to take action to protect kids' online privacy — a stance that's received early bipartisan support from lawmakers. The remarks follow Biden's Jan. 11 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, calling on both political parties to move on the issue. 

"As I said last year in my State of the Union address, millions of young people are struggling with bullying, violence, trauma and mental health," Biden wrote. "We must hold social-media companies accountable for the experiment they are running on our children for profit."

In a January letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin, D-Ill., urged the Justice Department to review Twitter's handling of child exploitation material. Durbin also questioned Twitter CEO Elon Musk in December when Musk disbanded Twitter's Trust and Safety Council, responsible for addressing child exploitation — the same entity at the center of the House GOP's investigations into Hunter Biden's laptop. 

Senate may take action — but no one knows what

On Tuesday, Durbin will chair the Judiciary Committee's hearing on how to protect children online. The committee is expected to hear from a number of advocacy groups at the forefront of current research. 

Ahead of the Senate hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., met with child safety advocates who are urging Congress to act on online protection measures. Blumenthal and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., are again sponsoring the Kids Online Safety Act, though the measure is expected to get some retooling. More than 90 digital rights advocacy organizations signed a letter opposing KOSA in 2022, arguing that its overly broad provisions could allow regulators to go too far.

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Similarly, a 2023 reboot of last year's COPPA 2.0 bill — an update to the 1998 Children and Teens' Online Privacy Protection Act — is expected, sponsored by Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, and Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts.

At its Tuesday meeting, Judiciary Committee members will hear testimony from a range of experts and child advocates. Josh Golin, head of child advocacy nonprofit Fairplay, is among those slated to appear.

"When Facebook launched in 2006, the only law protecting kids online was already eight years old. Since then, Congress has failed to enact any meaningful protections for young people on the internet, all while Big Tech competed in a race to the bottom to monopolize children's attention. The results of 25 years of inaction have been devastating. Congress must act now to create the internet American kids and families deserve," Golin said in a statement ahead of the hearing. 

The committee will also hear from Dr. Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer of the American Psychological Association, who will testify on social media and youth mental health.

At least 20 state legislatures have begun tackling online privacy rights in the absence of federal action, with a variety of bills that have been either introduced or passed. Whether any of these bills will have any effect on the rapidly evolving online universe, which has so far defied all regulatory efforts, remains to be seen.

By Rae Hodge

Rae Hodge is a science reporter for Salon. Her data-driven, investigative coverage spans more than a decade, including prior roles with CNET, the AP, NPR, the BBC and others. She can be found on Mastodon at 


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Democrats Hunter Biden Mental Health Online Harassment Reporting Republicans Social Media Teenagers