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Why a Surgeon General's Warning on Social Media is Not Enough


teens and social media

Reprinted by permission from Psychology Today.


KEY POINTS


  • A U.S. Surgeon General advisory and APA health advisory recommend digital literacy education.

  • Teaching teens to be skeptical of technology and its downsides may be the key to keeping them safe.

  • Many teens benefit from social media, from finding support to feeling more connected to their peers.

  • A Pew Research Center survey finds that 54% of teens say it would be hard to give up social media.


In an op-ed for The New York Times, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has called for a surgeon general’s warning to appear on social media platforms. Much like the tobacco warnings implemented in the U.S. in 1966, when 42% of Americans smoked, these warnings would regularly remind parents and teens that social media “has not been proven safe.” According to Murthy:

Evidence from tobacco studies show that warning labels can increase awareness and change behavior. When asked if a warning from the surgeon general would prompt them to limit or monitor their children’s social media use, 76 percent of people in one recent survey of Latino parents said yes.

While the expectation that parents would read these warnings and then forbid their teens from using social media sounds ideal in theory, in practice, most teens sign up for and use social media without parental oversight at all. Already, social media platforms offer lengthy privacy policies, terms of use, and community guidelines meant to safeguard and guide behavior, yet these go largely unread. Would a surgeon general’s warning be any different? Or would it be just another thing for teens to ignore and swipe away in their eagerness to socialize online?


We Do Have Seatbelts


A big problem with social media, according to Murthy, is that there is “no seatbelt for parents to click, no helmet to snap in place….” Yet there are, in a fashion, both seatbelts and helmets at our disposal. Education. By teaching teens how to be wise masters of their own online experiences through digital and media literacy education, we are essentially providing them with such safeguards directly.


Even the U.S. surgeon general called for this as a viable solution in its own advisory last year. In Social Media and Youth Mental Health, it called on policymakers to:


Support the development, implementation, and evaluation of digital and media literacy curricula in schools and within academic standards.

The advisory also suggested that “digital and media literacy provides children and educators with the digital skills to strengthen digital resilience, or the ability to recognize, manage, and recover from online risks…including excessive social media use.”


In its own Health Advisory on Social Media Use in Adolescence, also published in 2023, the American Psychological Association also put forth a recommendation for digital literacy education, stating:


Psychological research shows children from a young age should be taught digital literacy skills such as identifying misinformation, protecting privacy, understanding how people can misrepresent themselves online, and how to critically evaluate information.

The APA advisory went a step further by recommending how to deliver digital literacy education, suggesting educators lean into “teens’ inherent skepticism of grown-ups.”


Teen Skepticism May Be the Key


Leaning into teen skepticism may well be the key to successfully safeguarding them from the harms of social media use. After all, if you know teens, then you know they do not relish being told what to do, who to be friends with, what to buy, or what to like. When they discover, through a robust digital literacy education, that this is exactly what technology, and specifically social media, does to them every single time they log on (and it's a lot, by their own admission, 46% of teens say they are online “almost constantly”), their behavior will change. After all, as the wise Francis Bacon said, “Knowledge is power.” That’s why we must empower teens with knowledge about:


  • Artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms that recommend content to them.

  • The use of their data for targeted ads.

  • Persuasive technologies (the infinite scroll, push notifications, etc.) capture and hold their attention.

  • How personal information is collected and sold.

  • Technological tricks that keep them online.

  • How misinformation is propagated and spread online.

  • And so much more.


It's a Step in the Right Direction


While implementing a surgeon general warning, in tandem with providing broader safeguards against social media risks, is a positive and much-needed step in the right direction, it’s not enough. We must engage and include teens in the effort to make their online experiences safe and positive. After all, it is their well-being at stake.


We must also acknowledge and respect the benefits that many teens are reaping from their social media use. Research shows that young people are more likely to have positive experiences rather than negative experiences online, according to the APA Advisory:

A majority of adolescents report that social media helps them feel more accepted (58%), like they have people who can support them through tough times (67%), like they have a place to show their creative side (71%), and more connected to what’s going on in their friends’ lives (80%). 

Finally, as much as many adults may not like it, social media is already an integral part of many teens' lives. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 54% of teens say it would be hard to give up social media.


So, let’s respect those teens who are already using social media in positive and productive ways and educate all teens on its benefits and dangers. This way, they will have the knowledge to make wise choices, be resilient in the face of danger, and understand why they must set limits and boundaries that prioritize their own emotional well-being.


References


U.S. Surgeon General (2023), Social Media and Youth Mental Health,https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/sg-youth-mental-health-social-media-advisory.pdf


American Psychological Association (2023), Health Advisory on Social Media Use in Adolescence, https://www.apa.org/topics/social-media-internet/health-advisory-adolescent-social-media-use.pdf


Vogels, Emily A., et. al., (2022), Teens, Social Media and Technology 2022, Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2022/08/10/teens-social-media-and-technology-2022/



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