Is Social Media the New Tobacco?

A call to arms to rethink social media

Andrew Ross Sorkin in The New York Times Newsletter: The U.S. surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, called for a warning label for social media platforms in a Times Guest Essay, advising parents that the technology may be helping fuel a mental health crisis among adolescents.

It’s the latest effort by regulators to impose restrictions on social networks — particularly over their effects on children and teens — and is a reminder of the increasing scrutiny of global tech giants.

Such a label would be similar to those placed on cigarettes and alcohol products. In his guest essay, Murthy writes that the issue has become an emergency:

Why is it that we have failed to respond to the harms of social media when they are no less urgent or widespread than those posed by unsafe cars, planes or food? These harms are not a failure of willpower and parenting; they are the consequence of unleashing powerful technology without adequate safety measures, transparency or accountability.

Scrutiny of social media’s effects on teenagers has grown in recent years. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes the 2007 release of the iPhone as an inflection point, with suicidal behavior and reports of despair among adolescents rising sharply since. (Other experts question such a link and point to other factors like economic hardship.)

Warning labels have succeeded in changing the public’s behavior before, with smoking in the U.S. declining sharply in the five decades since one was required for cigarette products.

Murthy acknowledged that Congress needs to get involved. A warning label would require their approval. He also urged lawmakers to pass measures that shield young people from online harassment, abuse and exploitation.

Murthy also recommended preventing platforms from collecting children’s sensitive data and restricting the use of features like push notifications and autoplay that encourage excessive use.

It’s the latest push to check the power of social media around the world. States have sued Meta and other companies over features that regulators say are addicting children, and some have passed legislation that seeks to shield young people from any negative effects of social media. And while a law enacted in April to force the sale of TikTok by its Chinese owner was focused on national security concerns, it also warned about the video app’s effect on young people.

Meanwhile, European Union regulations require social media users be at least 16 to have their personal data processed without parental consent.

Tech companies say they’ve been working to better protect teens. Meta, for instance, has said that platforms should be given time to work with watchdogs to “create clear, age-appropriate standards for the many apps teens use.” Yet as Murthy’s call shows, those efforts haven’t been enough to allay the concerns of governments and parents.

More here.