It’s an emergency

We need warning labels on social media to protect children, but that’s not enough.

US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is advocating for warning labels on social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram, X and Facebook, informing users about mental health risks for the nation’s youth. He bases his analysis on tobacco warning labels changing users’ behaviors and addictions.

You can read his New York Times guest essay here. He writes, “The mental health crisis among young people is an emergency. Adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media face double the risk of anxiety and depression symptoms, and the average daily use in this age group, as of the summer of 2023, was 4.8 hours.”

Time spent on social media is a factor, but many dispute that as the sole reason causing addiction, depression and anxiety in teens and adolescents.

The Atlantic’s Caroline Mimbs Nyce posted a skeptical response to Murthy’s initiative, under the clever title of, “Instagram is not a cigarette.” She questions warning label studies, noting “research into the effects of social media on young people has been a mixed bag; even the studies cited by Murthy are not as straightforward as presented in the op-ed.”

She acknowledges that cigarettes cause cancer and heart disease. But one cannot compare social media’s effect on children with dangers of nicotine.

A cigarette may look different from a TikTok screen. But both impact brain and body. Smoking causes permanent damage to the lungs. Social media damages the brain, impacting the “ability to concentrate, focus, form memories, and even our mental health.”

Know2Protect, a national awareness campaign by the US Department of Homeland Security, urges parents to view its several recommendations, “to understand the problem, know the threats, and take action.”

The project focuses on top apps for teens, including YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat and X. Use by young people “is nearly universal, with up to 95% of young people ages 13-17 reporting using a social media platform and more than a third saying they use social media ‘almost constantly.’”

Moral panic

I have been covering this issue for decades as reporter and author. I wrote two books about it, published by Oxford University Press: ‘Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age‘ and ‘Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine‘.

My research indicates that technology addiction is a serious factor in the mental wellbeing of youth.

I dispute opinions to the contrary, such as this one by The Daily Beast, titled “The Surgeon General Is Wrong. Social Media Doesn’t Need Warning Labels.” Mike Masnick, technologist and founder of the popular Techdirt blog, cites the 1982 surgeon general warning about video games being hazardous to children. “This warning was not based on any actual science or evidence, but it kicked off decades of moral panic and fearmongering over the supposed risks of video games and children.”

He makes the same correlation with warning labels.

The “moral panic” hyperbole — associated with Luddite-leaning determinists like me — is a spurious argument that has been debunked repeatedly by research. That excuse was leveled against me over the years by similar technologists since the publication of my first warning: “Facing the Facebook,” published in 2006 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Here’s the lead sparking panic among tech writers, professors and collegiate digital vendors:

“Information technology in the classroom was supposed to bridge digital divides and enhance student research. Increasingly, however, our networks are being used to entertain members of ‘the Facebook Generation’ who text-message during class, talk on their cellphones during labs, and listen to iPods rather than guest speakers in the wireless lecture hall.”

I have published dozens of op-eds and peer reviewed articles on the topic ever since, most recently in The Des Moines Register, noting “Social media’s threat to Iowa children includes dangerous terms of service.”

Here’s an excerpt: “Social media companies made more than $11 billion from minors last year. Forbes notes that these companies utilise a revenue model exploiting people of any age: ‘Find users who will add and engage with content; keep them there at all costs; bring in more users; and sell ads or data. Rinse and repeat.’”

It is important for legislators, technologists, teachers and parents to remember that “time spent” on social media may impact psyche. But “time” also can be measured in several ways: age, generation and, most important, age when introduced to technology.

Toddler technology

Many Gen Z members have been exposed to tablets and mobile phones as early as age 2. That’s all they know. They haven’t read books. They haven’t received a literary education, as prior generations did. They suffer from iDisorder, altering the brain’s ability to process information “resulting in signs and symptoms of psychological disorders — such as stress, sleeplessness, and a compulsive need to check in with all of your technology.”

A comprehensive study in JAMA Pediatrics — including 7,097 mother-child pairs — found that screen time at age 1 year causes “developmental delays in communication and problem-solving at ages 2 and 4 years.”

Warning labels on social media platforms will help awareness. But we need to do more. Children learn about the risks of social media by trial and error, especially concerning threats, bullying and privacy invasion. There’s no excuse for that. Schools should be teaching media and technology literacy as early as middle school.

The issue now is urgent with the introduction of artificial intelligence combining with social media algorithms. Banning social media is not an option because those platforms are ubiquitous and universal. Proper use combined with awareness and literacy are our only options at present.

Take them.

Michael Bugeja is the author of “Living Media Ethics” (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and “Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine” (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch, where this article was first published. Views expressed here are his own.

(Photo illustration by Iowa Capital Dispatch via Canva with background image via Getty Images)

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