A teenager holds her phone as she sits for a portrait near her home in Illinois, in March, 2023. The U.S. Surgeon General is warning there is not enough evidence to show that social media is safe for young people — and is calling on tech companies, parents and caregivers to take “immediate action to protect kids now.” (Erin Hooley / Associated Press file photo)

A teenager holds her phone as she sits for a portrait near her home in Illinois, in March, 2023. The U.S. Surgeon General is warning there is not enough evidence to show that social media is safe for young people — and is calling on tech companies, parents and caregivers to take “immediate action to protect kids now.” (Erin Hooley / Associated Press file photo)

Editorial: Warning label on social media not enough for kids

The U.S. surgeon general has outlined tasks for parents, officials and social media companies.

By The Herald Editorial Board

This time a warning label won’t be nearly enough.

Not since 1970 when the U.S. Surgeon General’s warnings regarding the serious health effects of tobacco first went on packs of cigarettes and other tobacco products has that national office issued a call so deserving of the public’s attention and consideration.

This week, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, in a 19-page advisory, warned that the effects of social media — in the form of popular phone apps such as TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and others — on adolescent mental health were not fully understood and that that lack of understanding is occurring at a time of growing concern for the mental health, physical well-being and social development of children and teens.

‘Profound risk of harm’

“There are ample indicators that social media can have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents,” Murthy said in the report.

Parents largely already share this concern.

“When I travel around the country talking with parents, the No. 1 question they ask me has to do with social media: ‘Is it safe for kids?’ Nearly 70 percent of parents say their job is harder now than it was for parents 20 years ago, mainly because of technology and social media,” Murthy wrote in a Washington Post commentary.

The answer, the report says, is that there isn’t adequate evidence to say social media use is “sufficiently safe” for children and teenagers.

The report outlines responsibilities for parents and caregivers, and even children and youths themselves. But the report also has recommendations for researchers, policymakers and — just as tobacco companies were found responsible for the health crises from which they have profited — technology companies that have developed and marketed these apps and use them for their profit.

The concern for adolescents is twofold; for the amount of time children are using social media and for the messages they are viewing and interacting with.

The presence of social media in the lives of U.S. teens is nearly universal; about 95 percent say they use social media platforms — most frequently TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat — with two-thirds using them for an average of three hours each day and 1 in 5 using it “almost constantly,” according to the Pew Research Center, leading to a lack of sufficient sleep and problems with attention to studies and tasks.

Children and teens also report viewing “extreme, inappropriate content” and predatory contact; feelings of dissatisfaction with their own bodies, especially among girls; and an addiction-like attraction to frequent use.

As with any tool, there are beneficial opportunities in youths’ use of social media, just as there are risks. The report specifically cites social media’s ability to provide positive community and connection with peers who share interests, abilities and identities, especially for those who are often marginalized as racial, ethnic, sexual and gender minorities.

But the risks may outweigh the current benefits, and must be addressed to assure social media’s best abilities can make it an effective and safe tool for youths.

The teenage brain

What leaves youths particularly at risk is the use of social media during a crucial period of brain development.

Dr. Frances Jensen, chair of the neurology department at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “The Teenage Brain,” told The New York Times that the middle part of the brain, which she calls the “social brain” and most vulnerable to peer pressure, is under active construction during adolescence. The front part of the brain, which manages decision making, regulation of emotions and assessment of risk, continues development well into the late 20s, which for adolescents can limit the feedback that warns them of dangers.

General’s marching orders

Because the surgeon general’s authority doesn’t reach beyond the office’s bully pulpit — it took an act of Congress to put the warning labels on cigarette packs — the value of the report is in its recommendations:

Parents can and should be the main gatekeepers, and the surgeon general’s report recommends that parents create a family media plan that promotes discussion, creates boundaries and sets limits; set rules as to what age adolescents can use social media; talk to kids about the technology they use and encourage them to share what they are seeing and report bullying or predatory behavior; and, importantly, to model responsible social media use.

Adolescents are encouraged to reach out for help, be cautious about what they share online, watch out for harassment of themselves and their friends and share their concerns for what they view.

Congress and state lawmakers should be strengthening protections to ensure greater safety for children using social media platforms, develop age-appropriate health and safety standards, support the development of digital and media literacy programs in schools, support increased funding for research on the harms and benefits of social media, and require a higher standard of data privacy for children.

Outright bans of social media however, such as Montana’s recent ban of TikTok, may be counterproductive. Such bans, while easy to pass, will be difficult to implement and will alienate the young users of the platforms — who are adept at finding and sharing workarounds — and could be found unconstitutional.

But parents and policymakers also have a responsibility to demand and mandate that technology companies provide far greater transparency about their platforms, how they work and — especially — the data that they are collecting from users — young and old — of those platforms.

Social media companies have made some concessions in offering tools that allow users greater control, setting age limits for apps and offering parental controls, yet there’s a yawning gap in what data and research that tech companies already have in their possession and have not shared with researchers and policymakers.

“Given the massive amount of data collected from companies and their intense focus on the influence of their algorithms, it wouldn’t be surprising if they already were experimenting with and studying how social media is being used and is affecting specific groups of kids,” writes Lisa Jarvis for Bloomberg Opinion.

Even a simple “like,” provides lucrative data about individual users that social media companies employ to direct content and advertising.

Beyond greater transparency regarding that data and their own research, the report says technology companies should assess the impacts of their platforms on children and adolescents and assess their risks, establish scientific advisory committees to inform their policies, develop systems to receive and consider complaints and concerns and strengthen protections that assure the highest safety and privacy standards.

With each generation of adolescents, a new threat to children and teens demanded attention and elicited breathless calls to action. From television to rock music to video games, those concerns were usually overstated and, in time, receded. But those cultural influences seemed easier to grasp and address.

What we don’t know about social media and its effects on children, however, now merits the surgeon general’s warning and our undivided attention.

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