Social media may harm kids. US Surgeon General says so

That's a warning and not permission, in case you were wondering

The US Surgeon General on Tuesday issued an advisory warning that social media, despite potential benefits, presents a risk to the mental health of children and adolescents.

The advisory [PDF], by Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy, is intended to call attention to the widespread use of social media by young people. It focuses on both positive and negative effects with an eye toward vague policy recommendations.

"Nearly every teenager in America uses social media, and yet, we do not have enough evidence to conclude that it is sufficiently safe for them, especially at such a vulnerable stage of brain, emotional, and social development," said Dr Murthy, via Twitter.

"Much of the evidence we do have indicates that there is enough reason to be deeply concerned about the risk of harm social media poses. For example, adolescents who spend >3 hours per day on social media face double the risk of developing symptoms of depression and anxiety."

According to a 2021 World Health Organization report, "Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death in 15–29-year-olds and the third in 15–19-year-old girls. The majority of deaths by suicide (77 percent) occur in low- and middle-income countries."

In the US, as of 2020, firearm-related injuries surpassed motor vehicle crashes to become the leading cause of death in children and adolescents, according to the CDC.

The CDC today ranks suicide as the third leading cause of death (2018-2021) among 15-to-19-year-olds, behind homicide and accidents.

The Surgeon General's advisory asserts a link between extreme content available on social media and self-harm, a claim supported in some research studies.

"Extreme, inappropriate, and harmful content continues to be easily and widely accessible by children and adolescents," the advisory says. "This can be spread through direct pushes, unwanted content exchanges, and algorithmic designs. In certain tragic cases, childhood deaths have been linked to suicide- and self-harm-related content and risk-taking challenges on social media platforms."

In the UK, the suicide of 14-year-old Molly Russell in November 2017 was attributed partly to Instagram and other social media, according to a coroner overseeing the case.

Childhood deaths have been linked to suicide- and self-harm-related content

Recently, more than 40 school districts have filed lawsuits based on mental health claims against major social media companies including Meta and its subsidiaries, Alphabet and its Google and YouTube subsidiaries, and TikTok owner ByteDance.

The latest of these legal salvos arrived in a federal district court in Oakland, California, on Monday, one from Mars Area School District, in Butler County, Pennsylvania, and the other from Berlin Brothersvalley School District, in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

"Defendants’ misconduct is a substantial factor resulting in a youth mental health crisis, which has been marked by increasingly higher proportions of minors struggling with anxiety, depression, thoughts of self-harm, and suicidal ideation," the Mars Area School District complaint says, arguing that the defendant social media firms should pay for the mental health services that 96 percent of school districts now provide to students.

This perhaps is what US President Joe Biden meant in his 2022 State of the Union address when he said, "[W]e must hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit."

Ohhh, won't somebody please think of the ... web

The Chamber of Progress, a tech industry lobbying group, asked lawmakers not to harm the internet in the name of protecting children by requiring websites to verify the ages of their visitors.

"As the Surgeon General highlights in his report, social media can create positive connections between young people and peers who share their identity, interests, and abilities," said chamber CEO Adam Kovacevich in a statement. "As lawmakers debate new digital safeguards, we shouldn't trade away user privacy by requiring everyone to verify their age, or shut off access to supportive online communities for young people."

The Surgeon General's advisory offers generic recommendations that appear to be designed to offend no one.

We shouldn't trade away user privacy by requiring everyone to verify their age

Policymakers are told to "strengthen safety standards and limit access" and "better protect children’s privacy." Technology companies are advised they "can better and more transparently assess the impact of their products on children." Parents and caregivers are urged to establish "tech-free zones" and be more involved in teaching and modeling responsible behavior. Children and adolescents, it's suggested, should limit their exposure to social media. And researchers should delve into the effects of social media further.

None of these recommendations are specific enough to elicit opposition. Nor do they acknowledge obstacles like companies actively blocking researchers from studying their data and algorithms, or downplaying internal findings about the mental health consequences of social media.

Even so, federal and state lawmakers are taking a stab at trying to rein in social media, despite the fact that many rely on social media messaging to reach and influence voters.

Utah has signed a social media law that requires parent consent, and California and New Jersey are considering related legislation. The issue now is whether proposed rules will be lawful, whether they can be enforced, and whether they will do more harm than good. ®

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