Surgeon General Wants Warning Labels on Social Media Sites

News & Politics

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt wants smartphones banned from schools. He says he’s documented “an international epidemic of mental illness” among teenagers. His research shows that the epidemic started in 2012, which is about the time that smartphones became ubiquitous, and is a worldwide phenomenon.

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There has been pushback on the idea of banning phones from classrooms, most notably from libertarians. But there’s no denying that something disturbing is happening with the youth of the world.

Now, Joe Biden’s Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, has written an op-ed in the New York Times calling on Congress to require a warning label on social media sites. Murthy writes that social media is associated with significant risks to a teenager’s mental health.

“Smartphones and social media fundamentally changed the way teens spend their time outside of school,” says Jean Twenge, a psychologist and author of the book “Generations.”

“You take a generation of young people, they’re spending a lot more time in their rooms, alone, not sleeping, not hanging out with their friends in person. That’s a pretty bad formula for mental health,” Twenge adds.

Haidt writes, “As the oldest members of Gen Z reach their late 20s, their troubles are carrying over into adulthood. Young adults are dating less, having less sex, and showing less interest in ever having children than prior generations. They are more likely to live with their parents.”

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Surgeon General Murthy reasons, “Faced with high levels of car-accident-related deaths in the mid-to-late 20th century, lawmakers successfully demanded seatbelts, airbags, crash testing and a host of other measures that ultimately made cars safer … This January the [Federal Aviation Administration] grounded about 170 planes when a door plug came off one Boeing 737 Max 9 while the plane was in the air.”

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But Liz Wolf, writing at the libertarian site Reason, claims that Murthy’s line of reasoning is flawed.

This is a flawed line. Of course, a body panel coming off a plane mid-flight, endangering passengers, is much more urgent than a teenager using social media and sometimes experiencing emotional harms from it. Of course, car crashes, which remain the second largest accident-fatality category in the U.S. and claim some 40,000 lives per year, are a more pressing harm worth solving via seatbelts and airbags than preteens feeling bad about themselves after scrolling for too long.

TV was still a fairly new phenomenon when I was young in the 1950s and early 1960s. But my parents carefully monitored what I was watching and limited the time I could watch TV (sports were an exception). Now every kid has a TV in their room and a phone anywhere they go. I understand why parental supervision is difficult.

Murthy’s “solution” is no solution at all.

“For too long, we have placed the entire burden of managing social media on the shoulders of parents and kids, despite the fact that these platforms are designed by some of the most talented engineers and designers in the world to maximize the amount of time that our kids spend on them,” Murthy told CNN last year after he issued a 25-page advisory hitting many of the same notes as today’s Times op-ed. He is correct that social media companies devote teams of engineers to optimizing the algorithm to push people to use the service more, but he’s incorrect to frame it as a David and Goliath situation in which parents cannot be expected to do the hard work of actual parenting.

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Murthy is framing the issue in terms of politics: “us vs. them” instead of an issue of culture. Social media has hijacked the youth culture, and we have to learn either to live with the consequences or alter the way parents do their jobs. Yes, it means denying children the freedom to roam social media sites (and the rest of the internet) but parents have been making these choices for children since humanity stood upright.

The technology to bar children from accessing certain internet sites is getting better all the time. Hopefully, soon, social media sites will take it upon themselves to bar or limit access (with the help of parents) so that the government doesn’t have to step in.

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