The Surgeon General Proposed Warning Labels On Social Media For Teens — And Experts Have Thoughts

The Surgeon General Proposed Warning Labels On Social Media For Teens — And Experts Have Thoughts

A source recently let me know that the responses to an article I had written were a bit mean-spirited. “That’s why I don’t read the comments,” I found myself thinking. I moved quickly past this news and on to the rest of my day.

My reaction suddenly struck me as very adult. I didn’t begin my life online never reading the comments, but it’s a strategy I’ve learned to keep my head above water. I arrived at this realization via experience, much the same way that I’ve learned I should stop after two cups of coffee or I’ll feel jittery.

Young people tend to lack this kind of wisdom. They also deserve opportunities to gain it. And therein lies the rub for parents, educators and others who care about teens. We want to protect them from the harm that social media can do while also teaching them how to use it in a way that minimizes such damage. To make a teen a safe driver, you first have to let them sit behind the wheel.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who issued a national advisory on youth mental health in 2021, is now calling for warning labels on social media for teenage users, à la the warning labels on tobacco products. In a New York Times essay published June 17, Murthy wrote, “The mental health crisis among young people is an emergency — and social media has emerged as an important contributor.”

In the Youth Risk Behavior Survey published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 42% of young people reported “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” in 2021, up from 28% in 2011. The number of youth who considered or attempted suicide also rose steadily over that decade.

There is a documented correlation between the increased use of social media and the rise of mental health issues in youth, although it isn’t always clear which is the cause and which is the effect. In his recent essay, Murthy cites research that shows kids who use social media for more than three hours a day are more likely to show signs of mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. Again, it’s possible that heavy social media use contributes to these problems, but it’s also possible that kids who have anxiety or depression tend to spend more time on social media.

Murthy also cites an August 2022 survey conducted by the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital of 1,480 youths ages 13 to 17. In the survey, 46% said that using social media made them feel worse (either “a little” or “a lot”) about their bodies.

These are alarming statistics, ones that parents should be aware of. At the same time, the Digital Wellness Lab survey found that teens also see upsides to the socializing that they do online. Seventy-nine percent reported that using social media made them feel more socially connected, and 69% said it made them feel more emotionally supported by peers.

HuffPost spoke with several experts on the topic of teens and technology about their thoughts on Murthy’s proposed warning labels.

Social media is not comparable to cigarettes.

“Cigarettes are a product that is toxic when used as directed,” Dr. Michael Rich, a pediatrician who is the director of the Digital Wellness Lab, told HuffPost. With social media, on the other hand, “it’s how you use it.”

One danger of vilifying social media is that it may then become a “forbidden fruit” and tempt teens even more. Another risk is that it would throw out the good along with the bad.

In recent years, kids (and adults) from historically marginalized communities, such as those who have disabilities or who identify as LGBTQI+, Rich said, “have been connected, and many of them use [social media] quite respectfully and quite gratefully.”

Devorah Heitner, author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World,” told HuffPost: “Social media is more like other risky things we do that have benefits.” She mentioned swimming, riding a bike and driving a car — as opposed to the cigarette comparison.

Social media, she added, is neutral for many kids, positive for some “and then there are kids for whom there is significant harm, that maybe they access something really dangerous, or they experience a very, very negative interaction or bullying.”

All parents are eager to prevent such things from happening to their kids, but, particularly when it comes to social media, are often not sure how. One challenge is figuring out what the equivalents of car seats, bicycle helmets and lifeguards are in this digital landscape, which, for us, can be unchartered territory.

An official signal of potential danger, such as a surgeon general’s warning, won’t solve the problem on its own, but all of the experts we spoke to felt that it could be a significant step in the right direction.

“The impetus behind a warning is to really stop and think,” Jill Murphy, content officer at Common Sense Media, told HuffPost. “Instead of just clicking without thinking, it causes that pause.”

To signal a warning from on high and broadcast it widely implicates everyone whom the issue touches. “It also puts a stake in the ground to acknowledge that we recognize, as a society, that social media is having a significant impact on the mental health and wellbeing of kids and teens, we can’t pretend that it isn’t, and that it’s all of our responsibility to acknowledge that, instead of just the parents,” Murphy said.

Companies have responsibilities, too.

If we see an official warning as an acknowledgement of risk, we can use it to pressure social media companies to minimize that risk for their youngest customers.

Murphy thinks the situation calls for a multi-pronged approach that involves government, parents and product developers.

Common Sense supports the Kids Online Safety Act, which would require companies to protect kids’ data and prevent them from seeing harmful content. Polls show that almost 90% of Americans support this legislation — with near-equal support from voters who favor Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden in the presidential campaign.

“There are elements within these platforms that could be adjusted to make the overall experience better and more beneficial, but we need that large-scale impact that comes from a warning label or legislation to really force companies to protect this next generation,” Murphy said.

Rich argued that such protections will also be a good business move for companies: “I think that it’s important to help them understand that the kind of meteoric rise in their business is over, and now they’re in a place where they need to stabilize and maintain and sustain their businesses, and the way they’re going to do that is by making their businesses focus not just on profits but on the wellness of their users.”

This focus needs to include meaningful responses when a user reports abusive or dangerous online behavior, Heitner said. “If my kid is getting sexually harassed or bullied online, if your kid is being impersonated, if there’s a fake account with your kid’s picture and name, and you contact these big companies like TikTok, Snapchat, Meta, Discord … [and] you get a bot, or you get referred to a call center, or you just don’t hear back at all — that is unacceptable,” she said.

Heitner wants to see companies “invest much more heavily in being responsive to complaints and concerns that kids or adults reach out to them with,” hunting down solutions to these issues with the same tenacity they devote to their own growth.

Online safety should be an ongoing conversation — in the public arena and in the home.

“One upside I can really see of the warning label is if it leads to caregiver-child or parent-child conversation,” Heitner said, noting that, as with driving, parents should not just “hand over the keys and forget it.”

“Parents of especially younger teenagers should know if their kids have social accounts. They should be leaning in to teaching their kids about being safe in terms of what information they share and who they connect with and who they follow in terms of content. Those are conversations that should be happening at school and in homes,” she added.

An important part of this conversation is balance. Even if the content a teen is accessing on social media is positive, if they’re spending so much time online that it’s interrupting their sleep or in-person socializing, the overall effect on their life can be negative.

To encourage kids to strike a balance, Heitner is in favor of measures such as a proposed law in Colorado that would require apps to display a pop-up warning to users younger than 18 after they spend an hour on the app in a 24-hour period or if they are active on it from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Helping guide teens in social media use is an ongoing conversation that parents will need to keep revisiting as their kids and the technology grow and change.

“There’s just no easy button,” Murphy said. “There isn’t a 10,000-steps goal in all of this. Parents are always asking us, ‘What’s the one thing I should do? How much time is OK?’ It’s not like that. … It is a real constant maintenance.”

Though the ground is ever-shifting and there’s never just one solution, Murphy did note that in all of her conversations with teens and young people, none had ever expressed a wish that they had spent more time on social media.

Speaking of the way parents are currently wrestling with the issue, she said, “It’s not for nothing.”

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