As social media continues to grow in influence and user base, pressure on governments to regulate it is mounting.

But concerns around data privacy, one of the main goals of social media regulation, are preventing effective research into how we should regulate. This so-called privacy paradox means we do not know enough about how regulation would work and it could prove disastrous with it being either massively under or over-regulated.

Conflicting views on the impact of social media

Social media regulation is dominating the tech zeitgeist, with platforms being blamed for a multitude of societal ills. The UK government has called for smartphones to be banned in schools, Australia is seeking to ban under-16s from social media altogether, and the US Congress has passed a bill aiming to ban TikTok. This all stems from social media being blamed for things like young people’s deteriorating mental health, political polarisation, and even acts of violence.

While the conventional wisdom seems to be that social media is harmful and children must not be exposed to it, some advocates claim that these platforms can help connect people with their communities. It is possible that it is being used as a scapegoat to distract from more systemic causes of poor mental health, like chronic underfunding of youth services.

A recent study by the University of Oxford found a positive correlation between internet use and wellbeing, seeming to contradict the many studies that connect social media to the increasing incidence of poor mental health.

With so many conflicting ideas floating around the tech ether, it is increasingly difficult for regulators to work out how to restrict platforms. More academic research into the impacts of social media is sorely needed if regulation is to be effective.

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Protecting privacy makes it harder to protect privacy

Concerns around data privacy, however, are making proper academic research into social media extremely difficult. This is because sufficiently large studies require the practice of data scraping.

Academic ethics approval can be difficult to secure for data scraping because of the question of informed consent: researchers must consider whether people who have posted on social media have given informed and enthusiastic consent to their data being used for this purpose.

Even if individuals posted publicly and agreed to the platform’s terms and conditions, it is reasonable to doubt that they have truly consented to be a part of the study. This can seriously hamper research into effective regulation, resulting in a privacy paradox: protecting individuals’ privacy prevents us from learning how to protect their privacy more effectively.

Ineffective regulation of social media will harm young people

There are two possible outcomes of this lack of research, each potentially devastating. Down one path lies the possibility of wildly under-regulating.

This outcome is made more likely by profit-motivated Big Tech companies—who are not bound by the same ethical standards as academic institutions—being incentivised to influence policy in this way. Under-regulation would be extremely dangerous, potentially causing untold psychological harm to young people.

On the flip side, our lack of understanding of it could lead to a frenzied period of over-regulation. This would stifle the genuine benefits of social media, like long-distance communication, the sharing of ideas, and creative collaboration.

On top of this, over-regulation could trigger a period of social media being blamed for even more societal ills. It is already held responsible for many problems concerning young people, many of which likely have multiple complex and intertwined causes.

This directs public outrage away from other more systemic causes of problems facing young people, like chronic underfunding of services or overworked and underpaid teachers. If a lack of research into social media leads to panicked over-regulation, it is likely these serious, systemic issues will be ignored for even longer.

Either way, our lack of proper academic research into social media and how to regulate it effectively will go on to harm young people, in one way or another. We must find a way to navigate the privacy paradox and develop a fuller understanding of this uniquely 21st-century challenge.