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Social media isn’t like smoking, warning labels won’t work

Social media isn’t like smoking, warning labels won’t work

Social media users need no reminding about the harm — they feel it instinctively. The problem is that they feel helpless to do much about it.

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Last Updated : 19 June 2024, 09:20 IST
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By Dave Lee

The US surgeon general’s call on Monday for social media services to carry health warning labels makes for a great headline, but it will do little to change harmful habits. More forceful action is needed.

Taking inspiration from the anti-smoking efforts that began in the 1960s, Dr Vivek Murthy’s proposal, he wrote in The New York Times, would "regularly remind parents and adolescents that social media has not been proved safe".

He wants Congress to approve the idea, saying, "Evidence from tobacco studies show that warning labels can increase awareness and change behavior".

I support Murthy’s broad conclusions on social media and its risks to the public. It’s becoming increasingly clear that limiting its mental health impact and increasing in-person interaction among young people seem just as vital as battling nicotine addiction. But the tactics used for an earlier generation’s health crisis are no longer a good fit for our current situation.

With tobacco, the goal was to compel people to quit, not moderate, because there are no benefits to smoking — and no drawbacks in stopping. The same obviously can’t be said of social media, as Murthy acknowledged in his advisory on social media, published last year. "Social media can provide benefits for some youth by providing positive community and connection with others who share identities, abilities, and interests", he stated. "It can provide access to important information and create a space for self-expression".  

The distinction makes warning labels on social media a nonstarter, another pop-up that users will instinctively disregard as they continue to engage.

Social media users need no reminding about the harm — they feel it instinctively. The problem is that they feel helpless to do much about it. Parental interventions, whether by taking devices away or limiting time screen time, have not altered the more powerful dynamics that make social media use so prevalent and damaging. Parents who seek to take more drastic measures for their children, such as allowing them to only use a "dumb" phone with fewer features, risks leaving them isolated from their peers.

Thankfully, Murthy is well aware of the shortcomings of warning labels. Indeed, I wonder if the suggestion is mostly a publicity effort, one designed to bring renewed attention to his more practical recommendations, which, despite being pushed for a year, are not yet close to becoming reality.

Murthy’s other ideas shift the onus from stressed parents to larger bodies, such as schools requiring phone-free environments, or to the social networks themselves, which can tackle some of these problems at scale. Murthy wants age-appropriate restrictions on "push notifications, autoplay and infinite scroll" — three common features of social networks designed to keep users hooked.

The companies have pushed back against most proposals. On Monday, a lobbying group for the tech industry said requiring warning labels would be an abuse of government power. Silicon Valley argues the link between social media use and deteriorating mental health has yet to be established. At the same time, companies resist efforts to open their platforms for proper scrutiny from independent public health experts, as Murthy is calling for. He is right to press ahead in the absence of absolutely definitive evidence (which may never arrive). As he writes, “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.”

But he needs help. Warning labels make little sense to anyone who understands how social media works and would likely quickly become as invisible to Americans as notices about accepting cookies or terms and conditions. Only by changing social media companies through force will Murthy get closer to achieving his aim of building "safer, healthier online environments". Sadly, Congress doesn’t seem to share his urgency.

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