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Should social media come with a health warning, like cigarettes? Experts say it’s a start

The Current24:12Should social media come with a warning label?

The U.S. surgeon general has called for social media platforms to come with a health warning for teens — similar to labels on cigarettes — but one advocate says the onus for online safety should be on big tech, not young people or their parents.

“I think that young people have had a tremendous amount of stress and burden placed on them to have to figure out and police their own social media usage,” said Zamaan Qureshi, co-founder of Design it for Us, which pushes for safer social media for young people.

“The vast majority of young people just don’t know or have the tools to be able to detach,” the 21-year-old told The Current’s Matt Galloway. 

In a New York Times opinion piece published Monday, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said social media is contributing to a mental health crisis in the young. He criticized tech companies for “unleashing powerful technology without adequate safety measures, transparency or accountability.”

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“When adolescents spend more than three hours a day on social media, we’re seeing an association with a doubling of risk of anxiety and depression symptoms,” he wrote, adding that the average time teens spend on social media every day is nearly five hours.

“A warning label would help parents to understand these risks. Many parents don’t know that those risks exist,” he wrote.

But in Calgary, 17-year-old Josh Boucher says he’s not sure teens would heed such a label.

“I don’t think it will make a big difference to be honest with you,” he told The Current.

“If I see a warning label on Instagram, I’ll still go on it. I don’t think it would really work.”

Qureshi agreed that in practice, a warning label isn’t going to dissuade young people from being on social media, especially if all their friends are using it. But he said the move is an important first step that should be followed by more robust regulation — and echoed Murthy’s point that it might highlight the risks for parents.

“[Parents] may think twice when their 13-year-old or younger is going to them, asking to get on social media,” he said.

On Wednesday, Canada’s Health Minister Mark Holland said he doesn’t think warning labels on social media would be “helpful” in protecting young people.

“Having open, honest conversations with our kids about social media, I think is the answer,” Holland told reporters.

Regulators should look at ‘addictive features’

In January, the CEOs of Meta, TikTok, X and other social media companies testified before the U.S. Senate judiciary committee about their efforts to protect young people online. The executives touted existing safety tools on their platforms and the work they’ve done with non-profits and law enforcement.

However, studies have shown that social media can affect a young person’s attention and memory, as well as disrupting sleep and causing symptoms of depression and anxiety.

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Madeleine Pshyk, an 18-year-old student in Calgary, said she has deleted Instagram off her phone multiple times. But she always redownloads it, even though it makes her feel bad.

“I absolutely hate it and it’s so hard to get away from it. You’re just scrolling and scrolling and seeing people happy and then you’re like, ‘Oh shoot, I wish I was that way,'” she told The Current.

Qureshi said the platforms are designed to be addictive, and that’s something regulators should look at. 

“We don’t want to see specific pieces of content regulated. We want to see the business model regulated … [to] reduce some of the addictive features,” he said.

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Caroline Fitzpatrick, an expert in how kids use social media, agreed that a health warning alone may not be sufficient. She said change is needed in how platforms use “social reward mechanisms.”

“We’ll get notifications, we’ll get a red heart. These are all ways to trigger habitual behaviour and to get us, in a way, hooked to these devices,” said Fitzpatrick, Canada Research Chair in Digital Media Use by Children.

She acknowledged that some of these notifications can be turned off, but argued that companies should switch to an opt-in model instead.

“Perhaps if we can change some of the default settings of these platforms, we can make them a lot safer for children and youth,” said Fitzpatrick, who is also an associate professor at the Université de Sherbrooke. 

Social media can also be a ‘lifeline’

Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok and Snapcahat already require users to be at least 13 years of age to sign up to their platforms, but critics say those restrictions are easy to get around. 

Qureshi said tightening up that age verification process would come at a privacy cost, and “end up just allowing the companies to collect even more data on us.”

Fitzpatrick also warned that there are downsides to keeping kids off social media entirely, particularly around being able to stay in touch with friends, or build connections.

“Imagine a youth who’s part of the LGBTQ+ community, who lives in a rural area, who doesn’t see anybody that looks like them,” she said.

“It could be a lifeline to be able to access social media and other youth that are sharing in their experience.”

Social media can also help young people learn new skills or hobbies, she said.

“If we decide to just throw out the baby with the bathwater, then we’re also depriving youth of these positive experiences.”

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