Researchers say the warning on social media is too broad

When U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy announced Monday that he intended to push for a mental health warning label on social media platforms, he was met with applause from many parents and teachers, who described a long and lonely fight to break children from a habit that hurt them.

It drew, however, a colder reaction from some scientists who study the relationship between social media and mental health. In interviews, several researchers said that the general warning offered by Dr. Murthy – “social media is associated with significant harm to adolescent mental health” – extends and oversimplifies the scientific evidence.

For many years, researchers have been trying to determine whether the amount of time a child spent on social media contributes to poorer mental health, and “the results have been really mixed, with probably the consensus that no, it's not related “said Dr. Mitch Prinstein, chief scientific officer of the American Psychological Association.

What seems most important, he said, is what they do when they're online: Content about self-harm, for example, has been shown to increase self-harming behavior.

“It's kind of like saying, 'Is the amount of calories you eat good or bad?'” said Dr. Prinstein, who testified before the Senate on the topic last year. “It depends. Is it candy or veggies? If your kid spends all day on social media following the New York Times feed and talking about it with his friends, that's probably okay, you know?

Like other scientists interviewed, Dr. Prinstein applauded Dr. Murthy for drawing attention to the mental health crisis. He said he is very optimistic about policy changes that might follow to prevent social media use from interfering with school, sleep and physical activity. After Dr. Murthy's announcement, Governor Gavin Newsom of California called for a statewide ban on the use of smartphones in California schools.

“What's going on out there, and what I think the surgeon general has exploited so well, is that parents feel so incredibly helpless,” Dr. Prinstein said. “It's giving everyone in this conversation some ammunition to say, 'Look, I don't care how angry my son might be at me, if the surgeon general says this might be harmful, I feel justified in taking the device away at 9:00 pm: 00'”

In his essay laying out the case for a warning label, published Monday in The New York Times, Dr. Murthy leaned more on anecdotes than scientific research. He cited a 2019 study that found that teens who spend more than three hours a day on social media are at double the risk of symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Dr Murthy has ready answers to his academic critics. According to him, children growing up today “don't have the luxury of waiting years until they know the full extent of social media's impact.” When asked to provide evidence of the harmful effects of social media, he instead argues that “we do not have sufficient evidence to conclude that social media is safe enough.”

“The warning label is important until we get to the point where social media is actually safe,” he said in an interview.

In interviews, several researchers said the proposed warning was overly broad and could prove counterproductive.

“These warnings are usually reserved for products that do not have a safe level of use or that cause harm if used exactly as the manufacturer intends,” said Nicholas B. Allen, director of the Center for Digital Mental Health at the University of Oregon . “This is not an accurate description of social media. The scientific evidence simply does not support the idea that social media is dangerous in itself.”

Instead, he said, it is “a context in which both good and bad things can happen.”

Even before Dr. Murthy's announcement, several researchers were questioning the widely accepted link between social media and the mental health crisis. The debate intensified after the publication in March of “The Anxious Generation,” by Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University's business school, which argued that the spread of social media had led to “an epidemic of mental illness ”.

The book, which spent 11 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, was panned in the journal Nature by Candice L. Odgers, a professor of psychological and computer sciences at the University of California, Irvine. “Hundreds of researchers, myself included, have looked for the kind of large effects Haidt suggests,” she wrote. “Our efforts have produced a mix of no, small and mixed associations.”

Dr. Odgers, who was contacted by so many journalists that she distributed a six-page summary of the scientific literature on the topic, cataloged meta-analyses and large-scale reviews that found that social media use has small effects on health, among them a 2023 report from a panel of experts convened by the National Academies of Sciences.

On Monday, following Dr Murthy's call for a warning label, Dr Odgers said the nation's top health official was at risk of labeling normal teenage behavior as “shameful, harmful and dangerous”. This could lead to conflicts within families and cause young people to be excluded from spaces where they find support.

Meanwhile, he said, “the real causes of young people's mental health problems remain unresolved.”

“I understand that the government and the surgeon general want to regulate social media companies,” he said. “And they see an opening to do it here, but there is a cost, and children and families will pay the consequences.”

Mr. Haidt and his occasional collaborator, the psychologist Jean Twenge, argue that there is plenty of evidence that increased use of social media leads to worse mental health, and they note that young people themselves often point to social media as a major causes of discomfort. .

Dr. Twenge, author of “Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen researchers. analyze statistical correlations, often dismissing them as small.

Their public health colleagues may look at the same data and see an unacceptable risk that requires action. For them, not acting might be a more dangerous choice, she said. “What is the risk that teenagers and children spend less time on social media?” she said. “If we are wrong, the consequences of the action are minimal. If we are right, the consequences of doing nothing are enormous.”

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