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Social media regulation is imminent; here is how it will shape the future of entertainment

Cover image for Social media regulation is imminent; here is how it will shape the future of entertainment

Photo: Tim Mossholder

Photo of Hanna Kahlert
by Hanna Kahlert

Last week, the US state of Montana banned (new downloads of) TikTok within its borders. This week, the US surgeon general has issued an official advisory about the negative mental health impacts of social media on young people. In MIDiA’s last blog post on the topic, we noted that the TikTok hearings and subsequent state ban could go one of two ways: either a singular regulatory pushback at the company for data privacy and potentially political purposes, or the start of a broader review of social media – and its uninhibited, largely unregulated growth over the last decade. The new advisory puts us firmly in the latter scenario.

Just another consumer good?

The language of the advisory is strongly geared towards immediate action, stating “While nearly all parents believe they have a responsibility to protect their children from inappropriate content online, the entire burden of mitigating the risk of harm of social media cannot be placed on the shoulders of children and parents”. It also compares regulating social media to other industries in the past, stating that “In the case of toys, transportation, and medications—among other sectors that have widespread adoption and impact on children—the U.S. has often adopted a safety-first approach to mitigate the risk of harm to consumers. According to this principle, a basic threshold for safety must be met, and until safety is demonstrated with rigorous evidence and independent evaluation, protections are put in place to minimise the risk of harm from products, services, or goods”.

In summary: social media has moved from simply another tech or entertainment company, free to expand and develop with relatively little pushback, to being considered a service / consumer good that is actively having negative health impacts on younger consumers, and thus must be regulated and held to higher standards. Regulation is not a potential thing on the future roadmap: it has now finally arrived.

The future could still (not) be social

This comes at a critical time for the broader entertainment industry and could throw its future into flux. As it stands now, 16-19-year-olds spend more hours on social platforms per week than they do watching video on streaming platforms (source: MIDiA Research consumer survey, Q4 2022). They are using TikTok as a search engine more than Google, and are spending increasing amounts of time creating content rather than simply consuming it. As AI threatens to flood the digital-entertainment world with new content, be it formal or user-generated, ‘official’ or fake, social platforms stand to benefit the most with their more laissez-faire ‘enable first, backtrack later’ approach to content than traditional entertainment.

Social platforms have the easiest opportunity to benefit from the new wave of AI-powered, user-generated content, and they have the benefit of being fully engaged sessions that can never be relegated to the background. They are also increasingly popular destinations for younger consumers, which will shape their future entertainment habits. These are all big advantages, which threaten to tread on the toes of traditional entertainment. On the other hand, they are about to come up against government regulation – and if it happens in the US, it will happen elsewhere, too. While this happens, more established entertainment will have an open window of time in which to swoop in and offer safer alternatives that fit the same consumer use cases. This can build upon promoting the health and safety of their audiences, instead of growing at their expense (and thus, invoking the challenge of new regulatory advancements).

The future of entertainment is in flux – and thus with it the ability of social platforms to dominate the future of the industry, for better or (as regulators increasingly see it) for worse.

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