Jon Gingerich
Jon Gingerich

In June, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy shocked the country when he called on Congress to pass legislation mandating tobacco-style warning labels to be placed on social media platforms in an effort to advise parents on the potential harms those sites place on teens’ mental health.

In a June New York Times opinion essay, Dr. Murthy explained that such measures would prevent platforms from collecting kids’ private data and would also protect young people from harassment, exploitation and exposure to extreme content. Additionally, such a law would require social media companies to allow safety audits as well as share mental health data with scientists and the public.

It’s a challenge that local governments across the country have been dealing with for some time. The state of New Hampshire in June filed a lawsuit against TikTok, claiming the site is knowingly harmful to kids. Meanwhile, New York City is slated to ban student cellphone use altogether in public schools. According to a June report released by New York’s Health Department that surveyed nearly 23,000 NYC parents, a whopping 78 percent think the government should step in to limit kids’ social media access. Florida and Indiana have already succeeded in banning cellphone use in classrooms and California is currently poised to issue a similar ban.

Of course, these developments come on the heels of a rare bipartisan effort in Washington to ban TikTok due to the Chinese government’s potential ability to use that platform to collect data on American users. In a move that won’t help his dwindling loyalty among young voters, President Biden in April signed a bill into law forcing Chinese-based parent company ByteDance to divest itself from the video platform in one year, lest it disappear from phones altogether in the United States.

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With social media now likened to smoking—and tech companies now effectively the new Big Tobacco—we’ve clearly reached a turning point in our conversation about digital technologies. Americans seem to begrudgingly acknowledge how potentially harmful these platforms can be, but these outlets are so embedded in our culture and so fundamental to how we communicate, one can’t help but wonder how we can unring this bell.

Let’s face it: The idea that social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok are contributing to young Americans’ mental health troubles isn’t exactly news. A landmark 2022 study authored by researchers at Bocconi University, Tel Aviv University and MIT suggested a causal link between an uptick in mental illness among U.S. adolescents and young adults—namely, increased rates of anxiety and depression—and the debut of social media platforms like Facebook in the early 2000s. We also know, thanks to a former Facebook employee turned whistleblower who in 2021 leaked a trove of internal documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Wall Street Journal, that Meta willfully allowed the spread of misinformation and divisive content over its platforms because it boosted site engagement, despite knowing the harmful effects sites like Instagram have on teens’ mental health. With behavior like that, the Big Tobacco analogy doesn’t seem far off the mark.

Finally, we know that daily screen time for kids has gone through the roof. A recent Gallup survey found that the average teen spends nearly five hours per day on social media sites. And social media is so deeply ingrained in the habits of young people today that they’re no longer using these platforms merely for socializing. According to recent findings by Forbes Advisor, nearly half (46 percent) of Gen Z members are now more likely to use social media apps for search than Google. According to a November study from Pew Research Center, a third of U.S. adults under 30 now get their news from TikTok. Social media and the Internet have become interchangeable terms.

Granted, a government-mandated warning label sounds excessive. Because no matter how you slice it, a social media site isn’t a pack of cigarettes, or a power tool or a plate of raw shellfish. I’m guessing social media companies would fight this precedent by invoking the First Amendment, but who knows how that would pan out, given the Supreme Court’s historic June ruling, in which it sided with the Biden administration’s efforts to put pressure on social media companies to combat misinformation. Either way, the debate is shaping up to become one of the most important free-speech issues we’ve witnessed in recent years.

In his new book, “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness,” social psychologist Jonathan Haidt recommends keeping smartphones out of kids’ hands until they’re in high school as well as raising the minimum age of social media membership—or “Internet adulthood,” as he calls is—to sixteen. That’s not a bad idea. I would add my own proviso here. Kids model their behaviors on adults, and teens clearly aren’t the only ones exhibiting addictive scrolling behaviors. If protecting our kids is really our main objective here, I suggest that a good place to start would be considering how much time we spend on these sites and if our lives wouldn’t be improved without them.