The US Surgeon General wants to put warnings on social media

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The US Surgeon General wants to put warnings on social media

June 21, 2024 -

Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy speaks during an event on the White House complex in Washington, April 23, 2024. Murthy is asking Congress to require warning labels on social media platforms that are similar to those that appear on cigarette boxes. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy speaks during an event on the White House complex in Washington, April 23, 2024. Murthy is asking Congress to require warning labels on social media platforms that are similar to those that appear on cigarette boxes. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy speaks during an event on the White House complex in Washington, April 23, 2024. Murthy is asking Congress to require warning labels on social media platforms that are similar to those that appear on cigarette boxes. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

The Department of Health and Human Services describes the US Surgeon General as the “Nation’s Doctor.” You might recognize the title from warning labels on alcohol and cigarettes. The current US Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, released an op-ed in the New York Times on Monday calling for Congress to put similar warning labels on social media, cautioning against use by children. US Surgeon General’s warning labels are exceptionally rare. So far, they only appear on alcohol and tobacco products.

Given the addictive and harmful nature of social media, would a warning go far enough? After all, it’s illegal for children under twenty-one and eighteen to buy alcohol and tobacco, respectively. Should Congress make social media illegal for children to use?

Would a Surgeon General’s warning for social media go far enough?

I’ve gone in-depth into the harms of social media in “Why are teens sadder, lonelier, and more depressed than ever before?” I also wrote about Dr. Murthy’s advisory to Congress last year on the profound harms of social media. It’s now fairly well established that high social media use by teens strongly predicts higher rates of anxiety, depression, and sadness, as well as (ironically) lower sociality. Suicide and suicide ideation accompany the mental deterioration. Teens, especially teens with low conscientiousness (a personality trait denoting low self-regulation), are spending more than four hours a day on social media.

Dr. Murthy summarizes nicely, “Adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media face double the risk of anxiety and depression symptoms, and the average daily use in this age group, as of the summer of 2023, was 4.8 hours.”

As such, Dr. Murthy admits that warning labels won’t solve the problem. He refers back to his advisory to Congress in 2023, listing a few further recommendations. According to him, Congress should pass laws that help prevent

  • “online harassment,”
  • “abuse and exploitation,”
  • “exposure to extreme violence,”
  • and exposure to “sexual content.”

He also suggests Congress “restrict the use of features like push notifications, autoplay and infinite scroll, which prey on developing brains and contribute to excessive use.”

Is there hope for kids and social media?

It’s possible that in two generations, moviegoers will puzzle over how (and why) we spent so much time on our phones when they see a film from the 2020s—much like we do about chain-smoking in old movies. We can all hope.

Policy questions about how much to regulate social media companies are interesting and up for debate, but one thing is for certain: we shouldn’t go on living as we have before—especially parenting kids. With the Surgeon General comparing social media to tobacco and alcohol for its addictiveness and harmful effects, we should strive to parent our children in light of social media’s danger.

If it feels impossible, or you feel guilty about how your child’s being raised, you’re not alone. There’s grace for mistakes and strength in numbers. First, let’s consider the strength in numbers.

How to protect children from social media harms

We’ve highlighted before that teens admit they would rather not be on social media. They feel like they can’t not stay active on it, though, because that’s where their friends spend their time. Peer pressure forces them to stay.

In light of this, here are other recommendations put forward by Dr. Murthy.

  • “Schools should ensure that classroom learning and social time are phone-free experiences.
  • Parents, too, should create phone-free zones around bedtime, meals, and social gatherings to safeguard their kids’ sleep and real-life connections — both of which have direct effects on mental health.
  • And they should wait until after middle school to allow their kids access to social media.”

He continues, “This is much easier said than done, which is why parents should work together with other families to establish shared rules, so no parents have to struggle alone or feel guilty when their teens say they are the only one who has to endure limits.” If you’re a parent or leader in your community, you can galvanize other parents and schools to limit phone time.

There’s grace for mistakes

If you feel guilty about your social media use or how you’ve parented your children, realize that there’s grace for mistakes. As Christians and parents, it can feel like we need to be perfect. However, when Jesus commanded us to “be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect,” he meant something a little different than we probably think (Matthew 5:48).

As Bible Project’s Dr. Tim Mackie points out, the Greek word translated as “perfect” is telos. Perfect captures some of this word, but a better way to understand it is as “purpose,” “complete,” or “whole.” Perfect implies “without any mistakes”—that’s probably not what Jesus had in mind.

Jesus was not teaching us to not make mistakes. We’re going to make mistakes. Jesus was “sinless,” but he probably stubbed his toe or missed nails with his hammer (an example my Dad likes to use). God does not want us to be “mistakeless” per se but sinless, complete image-bearers fulfilling our purpose to love God and others. Complete in love, like God.

Allowing teens and kids free reign of social media is clearly a mistake. Wisdom, coupled with evidence, demands we strive to cut social media time down. To image God and raise children well, we must curb the flesh’s addictive desires.

Given God’s grace for our sin and our mistake-prone, limited nature, however, we shouldn’t feel guilty about it either. God has set us free to pursue Christ-likeness in all things, including social media and parenting. The question then becomes if we will use that freedom well.

Will you?

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