The Bleeding of Social Media

For a while now, Jon Haidt has been arguing that social media plays a significant role in the spike in anxiety and depression in teens. While it hasn’t received universal approval, it also hasn’t received much condemnation. There just aren’t a great many people who want to argue that social media in excess is good for anyone, particularly when it comes to kids using their smartphones to access social media during school.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has come up with a solution: Put a surgeon general’s warning on social media.

It is time to require a surgeon general’s warning label on social media platforms, stating that social media is associated with significant mental health harms for adolescents. A surgeon general’s warning label, which requires congressional action, would regularly remind parents and adolescents that social media has not been proved safe.

How exactly that would work is a mystery. Would a screen appear every time you opened a social media website, however that would be defined, saying “The Surgeon General has determined that social media is bad for your health”? Unlike a physical product, say cigarettes, that’s required to include the surgeon general’s warning, compelling speech on a platform that’s protected by the First Amendment is a wee bit different.

But then the argument goes in an even more troubling direction. Social media “has not been proved safe”? Is that how it works? Is the burden of proof henceforth that content on the web must prove itself safe or else? It’s not that the government must satisfy a burden of proving it harmful, but everything not proven safe is presumed a danger? I’ve never proven SJ safe, and it’s arguably social media since there are comments from readers allowed that might give rise to third-party engagement. Even if I had such a burden, how would I prove SJ safe?

To be clear, a warning label would not, on its own, make social media safe for young people. The advisory I issued a year ago about social media and young people’s mental health included specific recommendations for policymakers, platforms and the public to make social media safer for kids. Such measures, which already have strong bipartisan support, remain the priority.

There is certainly a great deal of concern, both in Congress and among parents who give a damn about their children, about the potential for social media to do harm. For a variety of reasons, I share that concern and believe that social media has rended the fabric of society and contributed to, if not caused, the isolation that’s given rise to many of the mental health problems epidemic in digital natives. It also hasn’t helped the marriage or birth rate, I would add.

This has given rise to many potential fixes, from regulating the use of private information gathered online, to regulating algorithms and notifications to keep radicalizing, dangerous and “disinformation” out of the hands of the vulnerable, to repealing Section 230 to make social media potentially liable for the expressions of third parties.

Legislation from Congress should shield young people from online harassment, abuse and exploitation and from exposure to extreme violence and sexual content that too often appears in algorithm-driven feeds. The measures should prevent platforms from collecting sensitive data from children and should restrict the use of features like push notifications, autoplay and infinite scroll, which prey on developing brains and contribute to excessive use.

In the abstract, all these things would certainly seem harmful to “young people,” at least to the extent that few would argue that a five-year-old should be subject to push notifications of terrorist radicalization. But then, it’s not only nearly impossible to define these bad things in a way that doesn’t put the government in charge of deciding for us what’s good and evil, but deciding who gets to see and hear what and when.

Murthy’s argument is that his surgeon general’s warning of social media, that hasn’t proven itself safe, will at least serve to warn parents and children of the potential harm, even though that’s just step one in a litany of regulatory changes he would impose. But what use is warning parents? Can’t parents just do their job and safeguard their children now, even though there’s no popup stating “social media kills”?

One of the worst things for a parent is to know your children are in danger yet be unable to do anything about it. That is how parents tell me they feel when it comes to social media — helpless and alone in the face of toxic content and hidden harms. I think about Lori, a woman from Colorado who fought back tears as she told me about her teenage daughter, who took her life after being bullied on social media. Lori had been diligent, monitoring her daughter’s accounts and phone daily, but harm still found her child.

Much as heartbreaking anecdotes are a cheap ploy to fill the gap where data fails to exist, Murthy undercuts his own argument. If parents are incapable of doing anything about the dangers of social media, then what use are surgeon general’s warnings? While the surgeon general’s authority is highly limited, and the putative basis for Murthy’s move shifts the burden off his shoulders and onto social media’s. this warning seem more like a first step onto the slippery slope of finding a fix without regard to its efficacy or the constraints of the First Amendment. But, Murthy argues, this is an emergency and something must be done.

One of the most important lessons I learned in medical school was that in an emergency, you don’t have the luxury to wait for perfect information. You assess the available facts, you use your best judgment, and you act quickly.

It’s not that social media isn’t a serious problem in many of the respects Murthy raises, or at least a likely cause of substantial harm, without a corresponding beneficial purpose making the risk worthwhile. But it’s not like bleeding out on the street either. So what’s the justification for rushing headfirst into the syllogism without first figuring out what’s causing the bleeding?

The moral test of any society is how well it protects its children. Students like Tina and mothers like Lori do not want to be told that change takes time, that the issue is too complicated or that the status quo is too hard to alter. We have the expertise, resources and tools to make social media safe for our kids. Now is the time to summon the will to act. Our children’s well-being is at stake.

Do it for the children is one of the most potent emotional weapons in the government’s arsenal. It’s also the first stop on the road to perdition.

12 thoughts on “The Bleeding of Social Media

  1. Luke Gardner

    “It’s not that the government must satisfy a burden of proving it harmful, but everything not proven safe is presumed a danger?”

    This is hilarious given that it was principally the government, through its official and unofficial outlets that badgered and bullied us into being injected with products that it assured us were and demanded that we believe are “safe and effective” but are now being shown to be anything but. The irony is putrid.

  2. Elpey P.

    “‘The moral test of any society is how well it protects its children'”

    Fans of some of the worst societies in history now have a better talking point than “the trains ran on time.”

  3. Anonymous Coward

    “Protecting the children” has already given us the CDA, FOSTA, SESTA, the Elmer Fudd like pursuit of Backpage and a bunch of other unworkable unconstitutional idiocy. Politicians never learn, or more likely politicians have learned too well that “for the children” gets them money and clout.

  4. rxc

    “Not Proven Safe” has to be the most absurd of all the leftist labels. NOTHING in the world can be “proven safe”. Not air, not water, not motherhood, not the law, not governments, and not breathing. All you can do is identify ways in which something might be harmful, and then decide how to deal with those situations. And “harmful” is almost always a matter of degree, and usually a subject of discussion. Without standards of harm, and objective ways to measure it, the label collapses into screaming protesters lying in the streets in front of traffic.

  5. orthodoc

    The Surgeon General says he needs extraordinary powers because a mental health crisis induced by social media is an emergency. The use of the word “emergency” should put you on your guard, signaling that you are about to lose freedom. Of course, there are genuine emergencies, but by their very nature, emergencies are time bound. (According to the Cornell Legal Information Institute, the term “emergency” refers to an “URGENT, SUDDEN, and serious event or an unforeseen change in circumstances that necessitates IMMEDIATE action to remedy harm or avert IMMINENT danger to life, health, or property; an exigency.” [emphasis mine]) Any power claimed because of an emergency therefore should be a) time-limited to a period adequate to study the best response and b) require the execution of that study for its continuance. Dr Murthy did not propose honoring either of those constraints.

      1. orthodoc

        glad to be here, but i wasn’t really gone. there just was not much to comment on the last 8 months with everything everywhere being so tranquil and serene

  6. Pedantic Grammar Police

    Every politician needs more power, so that he can better rule control serve the public.

  7. KP

    Any solution that involves the person pushing it bettering themself one way or another is no solution, its just naked self-interest. If the social media companies had said “What we need is a SG’s warning on a pop-up”, I’d consider it worth more.
    Most clearly seen in wind and solar power these days, but the medical field is also stuffed full of them.


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