We Know Social Media Is Bad for Kids. Let’s Prove It. | Opinion

We Know Social Media Is Bad for Kids. Let’s Prove It.

A warning by the US Surgeon General didn’t fall on deaf ears, but in order to regulate TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram, he’ll need convincing data to back up his claims.

| Updated on: May 30 2023, 13:40 IST
Social media permeates a teen’s day. (AFP)
Social media permeates a teen’s day. (AFP)

This newsletter is a safe space, right? I know I can confide in you, dear reader. Well, here goes nothing: According to the Screen Time setting on the iPhone, I spent 30 hours and 22 minutes on my phone this week. A little over half of that — 15 hours and 27 minutes — was spent on social media. The fact that I regularly spend over more than 10% of my waking hours staring at a three- by six-inch screen is about the most embarrassing thing I could admit. In that amount of time, I could have:

Baked 26 almond berry layer cakes — a Melissa Clark classic.

Read all three volumes of Lord of the Rings with time to spare.

Taken an introduction to Python course to learn more about coding.

It's grotesque, I know! But social media is designed to be addictive. All these are meant pull your eyeballs in with a force stronger than a rip tide. Right as I say “No, I've had enough Instagram,” a friend will send me a TikTok video of how to make green garlic butter and then I'm sucked back in all over again.

For many children, the screen time statistics might look even worse than mine, and instead of green garlic butter, they might be exposed to videos that glamorize suicide or eating disorders. “Social media permeates a teen's day. Nearly every teenager in the US — 95% — is on social media,” Lisa Jarvis writes, and over a third report using it “almost constantly.” “Even when their child doesn't have their own TikTok account, they're certainly seeing it on the playground or after school,” she notes.

US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a warning last week around social media, arguing that it is harmful to teen mental health. The announcement wasn't exactly a shocker, but issuing a health warning à la alcohol and cigarettes is trickier said than done. Noah Feldman, who is a parent of teens himself, says any attempt to bar free speech of children will run into a challenge because of the First Amendment. “The more evidence that public health experts can gather to ascertain the causal relationship between social media use and mental health, the stronger the case for regulation will become,” Noah writes.

Lisa is in agreement. “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,” she writes. Lawmakers must ensure this data is made transparent so the case for regulation isn't impossible.

Without a change, F.D. Flam says Americans under 20 may continue to go down a dark path. In the last three years alone, deaths among those aged one to 19 surged by 20% — driven by an increase in car crashes, suicide, homicide and drug overdoses. F.D. argues that isolation during the pandemic created “a disaster cascade” for young people. If you thought six months of solitude felt like an eternity, imagine how slowly time went by for a 14-year-old, unable to make new friends or participate in activities with other children. “Social media drove people apart more often than it acted as a substitute for real social interaction,” she writes. Kids are in need of some serious R&R — not Rest & Relaxation, but Research & Regulation.

Jessica Karl is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and author of the Bloomberg Opinion Today newsletter.


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First Published Date: 30 May, 13:34 IST