Key Findings from Stanford Event with Youth Online Safety Leaders & Federal Task Force

Key Findings from Stanford Event with Youth Online Safety Leaders & Federal Task Force

Youth online health and safety leaders urged action, shared accountability and a nuanced approach to empower and protect young people online.
miriam delphin-rittmon and jeff hancock sit at a table. A red sign is behind them Assistant Secretary Miriam Delphin-Rittmon (L) and Professor Jeff Hancock discuss adolescent mental health and social media at the Youth Online Safety Conference, March 13, 2024.

The Stanford Internet ObservatorySocial Media Lab and Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing convened nearly 100 experts in youth online safety and well-being last week. The March 13 convening was held in collaboration with the Biden-Harris Administration’s Kids Online Health and Safety Task Force to inform future research and the task force’s work developing industry guidance, parental resources and public policy recommendations by spring 2024.

Participants recognized a sense of urgency and agreed on the importance of nuance and shared accountability to address the complex issue of online health and safety for young people. Discussions focused on increasing the benefits of social media while addressing risks to safety, mental health and well-being.

Youth leaders and experts from the tech industry, government, civil society and academia came together for conversations on empowering and protecting young people on social media and recommending best practices for industry and policy action. 

Task Force co-chairs Assistant Secretary of Commerce Alan Davidson and Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use Miriam E. Delphin-Rittmon were joined by Principal Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer and National Artificial Intelligence Initiative Office Director Deirdre K. Mulligan and senior officials from the Department of Commerce, Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice.

Jeff Hancock, the Harry and Norman Chandler Professor of Communication, led the event and participated in a fireside chat with Assistant Secretary Delphin-Rittmon, administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 

Trust & Safety Professional Association Executive Director Charlotte Willner joined Assistant Secretary Davidson, who leads the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, for a fireside chat on industry efforts to improve well-being and address safety risks. 

Industry participants included representatives from Amazon, Apple, Discord, Google (YouTube), Meta (Instagram and Facebook), Microsoft, Roblox, Snap and Twitch. Civil society and academic participants included representatives from the American Psychological Association; Center for Democracy and Technology, Digital Trust & Safety Partnership; Family Online Safety Institute; Safe Online; Stanford University; University of California, Irvine; University of Michigan; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Southern California. 

Key Takeaways

Participants with diverse perspectives recognized a sense of urgency for policy and industry action to protect and empower young people on social media platforms. Many pointed out the importance of involving teens to understand their experiences and inform policy and platform design.  

Nuance was a key theme in discussions with participants emphasizing that no two teens or online spaces are the same. There was also recognition that technology cannot alone solve these problems. Family and community play an important role in addition to policy and industry action. 

These important takeaways were framed with an opening presentation and panel discussion featuring high school and college leaders from peer mentoring and online well-being education organizations. Participants frequently noted the importance of fully integrating youth leaders into the event who shared testimonials from peers and contributed their unique experiences and recommendations.

Key themes and lessons emerged from an open workshop conversation, two fireside chats, three panel discussions and four breakout sessions held during the convening.

  • Youth voices are essential for understanding the unique lived experiences of teenagers and making positive changes in product design and public policy that affects their well-being. There is little or no separation between online and offline worlds. Children and teens are often required to be online for school and to connect with friends and family.
  • There is a sense of urgency to take action, especially from young people and their parents or guardians. There was broad consensus on taking action to set industry standards for online safety and well-being, pass public policy and educate parents and young people.
  • Nuance and choice are important in product design and public policy as no two social media platforms or young people are the same. A public policy framework should consider the unique features of online spaces — including social media, video games, virtual reality worlds, online messaging and video chat spaces. Unique lived experiences and the maturity and developmental stages of young people should be considered in platform design and policy.
  • There is a strong demand for accountability from the tech industry and policymakers with calls for an industry baseline for youth safety measures. Platforms are unique but a policy framework includes transparency, risk assessments and independent scrutiny. Safety measures should be risk-based and public policy requires more nuance than revoking or restricting young people’s access to social media.
  • A holistic approach is needed to address youth well-being with family and community playing an important role in providing trusted guidance for young people and helping them improve their exercise, nutrition and sleep. Parents and guardians should set a positive example with their own device usage, and young people should also have access to mental health and well-being resources.
  • More research is needed on youth online safety and well-being to support teens and test the effectiveness of safety tools and design changes. There are many barriers to research and data access with attendees supporting more industry collaboration with independent researchers, “sandbox” environments for young people and researchers to experiment with design changes and developing standardized data classifications and measurements.
  • Young people face distinct risks of harm that often pose distinct challenges from a design and policy perspective and have different levels of severity and prevalence. Policymakers and industry should take risk-based approaches that address unique harms to well-being, mental health and abuse.  
  • There is hope from shared commitment and collaboration across industries and areas of expertise. Participants agreed on the importance of mutual accountability and learning from both the good and the bad of social media. This is an all-hands effort to address online risks to young people with participants representing student leaders and professionals with clinical, legal, technical and policy expertise working towards a common goal.

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