If we are serious about addressing the alarming worsening of teens’ mental health, we must reduce their social media use.
Leading ISIS Media Figure and Foreign Fighter Sentenced to Life Imprisonment – Department of Justice
A Saudi-born Canadian citizen was sentenced today to life imprisonment for conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a designated foreign terrorist organization, resulting in death.
According to court documents, Mohammed Khalifa, aka Abu Ridwan Al-Kanadi and Abu Muthanna Al-Muhajir, 39, served in prominent roles within ISIS starting in 2013 and continuing until his capture by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in January 2019, following a firefight between ISIS fighters and the SDF. In addition to serving as a fighter and personally executing two Syrian soldiers on behalf of ISIS, Khalifa served as a lead translator in ISIS’s propaganda production and the English-speaking narrator on multiple violent ISIS videos.
In the spring of 2013, Khalifa traveled to Syria with the intent of becoming a foreign fighter and ultimately joining ISIS. In or around November 2013, he joined ISIS and swore allegiance to then-ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In early 2014, he was recruited to join ISIS’s media department due, in part, to his language abilities as a fluent English and Arabic speaker. Starting in 2016, Khalifa directed various supporter networks that assisted in the translation, production and dissemination of propaganda released under various ISIS media brands in order to reach Western audiences. He worked within the ISIS media operation until late 2018.
Khalifa provided the narration and translation for approximately 15 videos created and distributed by ISIS. The productions narrated by Khalifa include two of the most influential and exceptionally violent ISIS propaganda videos: “Flames of War: Fighting Has Just Begun,” distributed on Sept. 19, 2014, and “Flames of War II: Until the Final Hour,” distributed on Nov. 29, 2017. The videos depict glamorized portrayals of ISIS and its fighters as well as scenes of violence, including depictions of unarmed prisoners being executed, footage of ISIS attacks and fighting and depictions of ISIS attacks in the United States.
The ISIS “Flames of War” videos include scenes of Khalifa executing a different Syrian soldier in each of the two videos. In the final scenes of both videos, a masked Khalifa speaks to the camera and is then seen executing a kneeling Syrian soldier while other masked ISIS members shoot the prisoners kneeling in front of each of them.
During the time Khalifa was a prominent member of ISIS, the terrorist organization was conducting a brutal hostage-taking and ransom demand campaign involving journalists and humanitarian aid workers who came to Syria from across the globe. Between August 19, 2014, and February 6, 2015, ISIS killed eight American, British and Japanese citizens in Syria as part of the hostage scheme.
In January 2019, Khalifa engaged in fighting on behalf of ISIS and attacked an SDF position in Abu Badran, Syria. Khalifa, alone and armed with three grenades and an AK-47, threw a grenade on the roof of a house where SDF soldiers were standing. The grenade detonated and Khalifa ran into the house and attempted to go to the roof, but an SDF soldier was firing from the stairs. Khalifa began firing at the SDF soldier and attempted to use all three of his grenades during the attack. Khalifa fired most of his ammunition during the assault before his AK-47 jammed. Khalifa surrendered to the SDF on or about Jan. 13, 2019. He was transferred to the custody of the FBI last year and brought to the Eastern District of Virginia, where he had his initial appearance on Oct. 4, 2021. Khalifa pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization, resulting in death, on Dec. 10, 2021.
Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division; U.S. Attorney Jessica D. Aber for the Eastern District of Virginia; and Assistant Director in Charge Steven M. D’Antuono of the FBI Washington Field Office made the announcement after sentencing by Senior U.S. District Judge T. S. Ellis III.
First Assistant U.S. Attorney Raj Parekh, and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Dennis M. Fitzpatrick, John T. Gibbs and Aidan Taft Grano-Mickelson of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, and Trial Attorney Alicia H. Cook of the National Security Division’s Counterterrorism Section prosecuted this case.
A copy of this press release is located on the website of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia. Related court documents and information are located on the website of the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia or on PACER by searching for Case No. 1:21-cr-271.
Why one county is suing social media companies
One mother in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, said her 18-year-old daughter is so obsessed with TikTok, she’ll spend hours making elaborate videos for the Likes, and will post retouched photos of herself online to look skinnier.
Another mother in the same county told CNN her 16-year-old daughter’s ex-boyfriend shared partially nude images of the teen with another Instagram user abroad via direct messages. After a failed attempt at blackmailing the family, the user posted the pictures on Instagram, according to the mother, with some partial blurring of her daughter’s body to bypass Instagram’s algorithms that ban nudity.
“I worked so hard to get the photos taken down and had people I knew from all over the world reporting it to Instagram,” the mother said.
The two mothers, who spoke with CNN on condition of anonymity, highlight the struggles parents face with the unique risks posed by social media, including the potential for online platforms to lead teens down harmful rabbit holes, compound mental health issues and enable new forms of digital harassment and bullying. But on Friday, their hometown of Bucks County became what’s believed to be the first county in the United States to file a lawsuit against social media companies, alleging TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and Facebook have worsened anxiety and depression in young people, and that the platforms are designed to “exploit for profit” their vulnerabilities.
“Like virtually everywhere in the United States now … Bucks County’s youth suffer from a high degree of distraction, depression, suicidality, and other mental disorders, caused or worsened by the overconsumption of social media on a daily basis, which substantially interferes with the rights of health and safety common to the general public,” the lawsuit alleged.
The lawsuit, which was filed in California federal court, said “the need is great” to continue to fund mental health outpatient programs, mobile crisis units, family-based mental health services, and in-school mental health programming and training to address the mental health of young people. Bucks County is seeking unspecified monetary damages to help fund these initiatives.
Bucks County is joining a small but growing number of of school districts and families who have filed lawsuits against social media companies for their alleged impact on teen mental health. The unusual legal strategy comes amid broader concerns about a mental health crisis among teens and hints at the urgency parents and educators feel to force changes in how online platforms operate at a time when legislative remedies have been slow in coming.
Seattle’s public school system, which is the largest in the state of Washington with nearly 50,000 students, and San Mateo County in California have each filed lawsuits against several Big Tech companies, claiming the platforms are harming their students’ mental health. Some families have also filed wrongful death lawsuits against tech platforms, alleging their children’s social media addiction contributed to their suicides.
“I want to hold these companies accountable,” Bucks County district attorney Matthew Weintraub told CNN. “It is no different than opioid manufacturers and distributors causing havoc among young people in our communities.”
He believes he has an actionable cause to file a lawsuit “because the companies have misrepresented the value of their products.”
“They said their platforms are not addictive, and they are; they said they are helpful and not harmful, but they are harmful,” he said. “My hope is that there will be strength in numbers and other people from around the country will join me so there will be a tipping point. I just can’t sit around and let it happen.”
In response to the lawsuit, Antigone Davis, the global head of safety for Instagram and Facebook-parent Meta, said the company continues to pour resources into ensuring its young users are safe online. She added that the platforms have more than 30 tools to support teens and families, including supervision tools that let parents limit the amount of time their teens spend on Instagram, and age-verification technology that helps teens have age-appropriate experiences.
“We’ll continue to work closely with experts, policymakers and parents on these important issues,” she said.
Google spokesperson José Castañeda said it has also “invested heavily in creating safe experiences for children across our platforms and have introduced strong protections and dedicated features to prioritize their well being.” He pointed to products such as Family Link, which provides parents with the ability to set reminders, limit screen time and block specific types of content on supervised devices.
A Snap spokesperson said it is “constantly evaluating how we continue to make our platform safer, including through new education, features and protections.”
TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.
The latest lawsuit comes nearly a year and a half after executives from several social media platforms faced tough questions from lawmakers during a series of congressional hearings over how their platforms may direct younger users — particularly teenage girls — to harmful content, damaging their mental health and body image. Since then, some lawmakers have called for legislation to protect kids online, but nothing has passed at the federal level.
Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, believes it will be “difficult” for counties and school districts to win lawsuits against social media companies.
“There will be the issues of showing that the social media content was the cause of the harm that befell the children,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t file these lawsuits.”
Tobias added that increased support for government regulation that would impose more restrictions on companies could impact the outcome of these lawsuits in their favor.
“For now, there will be different judges or juries with diverse views of this around the country,” he said. “They aren’t going to win all of the cases but they might win some of them, and that might help.”
Whatever the outcome, the mother of the 16-year-old whose intimate photos were shared on Instagram is applauding the district attorney’s office for sending a strong message to social media companies.
“Before the incident with my daughter, I would not have given a lawsuit filed by the county much thought,” she said. “But now that I know how hard it was to take content down and there’s only so much people can do; corporations need to do so much more to protect its users.”
Social media is devastating teens’ mental health. Here’s what parents can do.
The connection is well-established. Abundant research has linked depression and self-harm to frequency of social media use. And a new study from the American Psychological Association shows that cutting back helps teens feel better. Companies are aware of this; Facebook executive-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed that the company’s own research found that use of their platforms was linked to anxiety, depression and body image issues in teens.
Federal health data highlight why this is so crucial. In 2021, 42 percent of high school students reported feeling so sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks that they stopped doing their usual activities. The crisis is particularly pronounced in girls; nearly 3 in 5 teen girls reported persistent feelings of sadness, an increase of over 60 percent since 2011.
Indeed, social media is creating a “perfect storm” for girls, Jelena Kecmanovic, a psychotherapist and adjunct psychology professor at Georgetown University, told me. “Their tendency to be perfectionist and hard on themselves during their tween and teen years gets magnified thousands of times in the online culture of comparison,” she said.
The trouble with online interactions is also what they are replacing. A 2022 survey found that average daily screen use increased further during the pandemic and is now more than 5½ hours among children ages 8 to 12 and a whopping 8 hours and 39 minutes for teens ages 13 to 18. That’s time that previously was spent engaging in-person relationships and on healthier activities such as playing outside, sports and sleep.
Pediatrician Michael Rich, who co-founded and directs the Clinic for Interactive Media and Internet Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital, explained to me that he treats teens who “struggle with physical, mental and social health issues” from excessive social media use. He has seen straight-A students’ grades plummet and young adults struggle to forge relationships after entering college.
Given the magnitude of the problem, solving it might seem daunting for parents. Nevertheless, here are four steps they can take:
Create spaces free from screens.
Kecmanovic suggests establishing guardrails, such as taking away screens during meals and before bedtime. Parents can also limit their kids’ social media use to the shared family space, “not behind locked doors, and definitely not until 2 a.m. in their bedroom” when they should be sleeping.
Given the ubiquity of technology and its use in school curriculums, it might be hard to enforce a screen time limit. Instead, Rich advises setting a minimum time without screens. “That becomes a more practical way to offer our kids a rich and diverse menu of experiences, which can include screens but shouldn’t be dominated by them or become the default behavior,” he said.
Mauritius media guide
The media scene in Mauritius is divided in two, with a highly politicised media, including the national broadcaster, and elsewhere media outlets which can be outspoken but sometimes veer towards sensationalism, says Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
US-based NGO Freedom House says that the media regulatory agency lacks independence and disproportionately targets opposition media.
Under 2018 changes to the law, journalists can face prison sentences for content that causes “inconvenience, distress, or anxiety”.
Television is the most popular medium. State-owned Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) radio and TV generally reflect government thinking. MBC is funded by advertising and a TV licence fee.
Two media groups – Le Mauricien Ltd and La Sentinelle Ltd – dominate the press scene.
BBC World Service is available via a mediumwave (AM) relay (1575 kHz). Radio France Internationale is relayed on FM.
There were 919,000 internet users by December 2021, comprising 72% of the population (Internetworldstats.com).
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