US Surgeon General Amplifies Social Media Moral Panic

Those pushing social media moral panic got a boost recently with the US Surgeon General calling for warning labels to be placed on social media.

When you give a cursory look over mainstream media reports about the safety of social media, you could be forgiven for thinking that the idea that social media is inherently dangerous to your mental health is just decided science at this point. This especially assuming you don’t really have any other sources to verify the wild claims that often come up.

The problem is that the moral panic over social media is following a nearly identical path as the moral panic over video games. The large media companies come up with some wild theory that video games are dangerous, then actively look for any shred of evidence – whether cherry picked or coming from questionable sources – that confirms it. This, of course, is the classic definition of confirmation bias: the act of seeking out details or evidence that confirms ones prior beliefs.

For the last few years, that has exactly been what is happening with the perception that mainstream media has been pushing about social media. Many people working in the mainstream media just personally believe that social media is somehow this monolithic threat to society – be it for mental health reasons or otherwise – and actively work to find anything that seems to confirm their beliefs. Worse yet, some sources go to the extreme of taking personal opinion from other sources and regurgitate it as fact even though the source doesn’t really have any scientific basis to formulate that opinion.

Even worse, portions of the population simply take the reports of social media being inherently harmful as fact because if it’s on every major news source, then it must be true. This despite the evidence used to push the case being extremely flimsy. In response, when some people are presented with actual evidence that runs counter to what people were told to believe, it sometimes results in the people presenting the facts getting attacked one way or another. This makes it more difficult for actual evidence to get out and requires people like myself to simply put on a brave face and present the evidence and simply take whatever flak we get for being gutsy enough to be truthful on the debate.

One of the major sources of misinformation on social media comes from 2021. At the time, Facebook was offering a presentation to the US government on what effects their platforms had on teenagers. As part of their presentation, they presented the following slide, showing where the platforms were excelling at and where they were looking to improve on things. Here is the slide in full (which is very often conveniently left out of most reporting on the major media outlets):

That is the whole story of that slide. In many ways, Facebook was actually helping people’s mental health in many areas at the time. They said that they discovered through their research that they still needed work on teenage girls mental health as it relates to body image.

The slide itself actually presented Facebook in a pretty positive light in two ways. In one way, it showcased the positive mental health impacts that Facebook actually had in a number of areas. What’s more, it actually showed that Facebook was being transparent on where they were falling short and suggesting that Facebook was working on addressing the few shortfalls they have in this area.

The problem? The media’s reporting on it. The Wall Street Journal cherry picked the data points and famously helped give rise to the highly misleading “one in three teenage girls feel worse about their bodies”. Lazy journalists simply republished that line many times over with the argument that social media is inherently dangerous to your mental health and that social media is solely to blame for the mental health crisis going on today. Those claims blew a single data point WAY out of proportion.

Despite the efforts of some, like myself, to correct the story, the lies across the media just kept going. For the large media outlets, they finally got that smoking gun they were looking for (even though they really didn’t) and the talking point got paraded around for years afterwards.

In fact, the lasting implications of that moment where the media cherry picked that data point to push a narrative continued to have lasting impacts even as recently as this year. Two months ago, there was the publication of the notorious UNESCO report which simply regurgitated that data point as evidence that social media is inherently dangerous to mental health. While the UNESCO report didn’t necessarily go so far as to say that social media should be banned from society (in fact, it recommended education which is a much more respectable conclusion), the mainstream media did a mainstream media and twisted the findings of the report to further calls to ban social media altogether or greatly restrict its use.

Generally speaking, the science has long concluded that the impact social media has on mental health is actually very neutral. It’s not inherently dangerous nor inherently very healthy. It is simply a communication tool more than anything else. There are underlying societal issues that need to be addressed, but rather than face the actual problems head on, some are content with trying to find an easy solution even if that easy solution doesn’t actually solve anything at all.

So, you can imagine my disappointment when I found out that the US Surgeon General decided to ratchet up the moral panic over social media by calling for warning labels to be placed on social media platforms saying that use of social media is hazardous to your mental health. The complicit media, naturally, didn’t question any of this because it contributes to the moral panic many of these outlets are pushing. From MediaIte:

Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy called for social media platforms to be required to issue regular notifications to users warning of the product’s potential to harm mental health, in an idea modeled on the effectiveness of tobacco packaging health warnings.

Dr. Murthy called for immediate action in a New York Times editorial published Monday and blamed social media as a major contributor to the emergency mental health crisis among young people.

“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,” the Surgeon General wrote.

There is, of course, a major problem with comparing social media to tobacco use (which MediaIte didn’t bother to question). That problem is that cigarettes are something that you physically consume. Social media, however, is not something you physically consume. The science of smoking cigarettes causing things like cancer is very solid. Meanwhile, the science behind social media causing mental health issues is, at best, extremely flimsy, or, more likely, actually contradicts the narrative the mainstream media has long pushed.

The moral panic pushed by the US Surgeon General then continued with this:

He continued: “While the platforms claim they are making their products safer, Americans need more than words. We need proof… One of the worst things for a parent is to know your children are in danger yet be unable to do anything about it. That is how parents tell me they feel when it comes to social media — helpless and alone in the face of toxic content and hidden harms.”

There is inherently a major problem with these comments (again, something that MediaIte couldn’t be arsed to question). That is the fact that parents aren’t, in fact, “helpless”. There is this thing called “basic parenting” that comes into play. Parents have the power to limit screen time through basic house rules. What’s more, parents can do this mystifying thing called “talking” to their children. I know, this is mind blowing stuff here, but there’s another next level thing that parents can do: “educating”. I mean, wow! Who could’ve thought that could possibly be an option here??? Things like telling your children that if you are being harassed online, you can use things like blocking features and reporting features. What’s more, educate children on how to spot misinformation, manipulated information, and basic actual research skills to confirm or debunk what they see online.

What is frustrating in all of this is seeing stuff like this and the concept of basic parenting is so hard to understand. I get that there may be some outlier cases such as parents having a debilitating disease that gets in the way of some of this, but these are exceptions to the rule, not the situation for every parent as suggested by the US Surgeon General.

Another piece of evidence that contributes to the conversation is the APA report. Techdirt did a great analysis of that report which basically found that there were actually mental health benefits to social media:

Like the APA report, it also says the evidence of a causal impact is lacking, and (like the APA report) it says that it appears social media is good for some and not good for others. Like the APA report, it clearly lays out the benefits of social media for kids:

Social media can provide benefits for some youth by providing positive community and connection with others who share identities, abilities, and interests. It can provide access to important information and create a space for self-expression. The ability to form and maintain friendships online and develop social connections are among the positive effects of social media use for youth. , These relationships can afford opportunities to have positive interactions with more diverse peer groups than are available to them offline and can provide important social support to youth. The buffering effects against stress that online social support from peers may provide can be especially important for youth who are often marginalized, including racial, ethnic, and sexual and gender minorities. , For example, studies have shown that social media may support the mental health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, transgender, queer, intersex and other youths by enabling peer connection, identity development and management, and social support. Seven out of ten adolescent girls of color report encountering positive or identity-affirming content related to race across social media platforms. A majority of adolescents report that social media helps them feel more accepted (58%), like they have people who can support them through tough times (67%), like they have a place to show their creative side (71%), and more connected to what’s going on in their friends’ lives (80%). In addition, research suggests that social media-based and other digitally-based mental health interventions may also be helpful for some children and adolescents by promoting help-seeking behaviors and serving as a gateway to initiating mental health care.

Then it also notes that for some, it might be negative. The same thing Pew and the APA report said. But even there, the report notes that there isn’t necessarily any evidence of a causal link, just “reasons for concern about the potential negative impact.”

And, even there, it looks like Murthy is doing some cherry-picking in how the data is presented. It quotes the Pew study (which again, focused on how only a small percentage of teens had negative experiences with social media, and a larger percentage found it helpful), but just to say that more than a third of those aged 13 to 17 use social media “almost constantly.” This “almost constantly” is trotted out frequently (including in school district lawsuits) without putting it into context. First, social media covers lots of tools. Kids use Discord to communicate with each other (and to track predator teachers), which is way different than just staring at images and videos all day. And again, there are lots of things that kids do “almost constantly” — such as attending school — that we don’t consider to be problematic.

In fact, the reality that social media actually has been known to have more positive impacts on society is actually frustratingly problematic for those pushing the moral panic that social media is inherently dangerous. Such findings repeatedly get buried and those pushing the moral panic often pretend that such evidence doesn’t even exist. As Techdirt points out, anecdotal evidence was used to try and scrub out inconvenient evidence on social media to push for these warning labels:

Yet, in Murthy’s statements this week, he completely ignores all of that evidence. He ignores any possibility of benefits from social media, not with evidence but with a few very limited anecdotes. These include concerns about his own two kids (who he notes are too young to be on social media anyway) and a few random stories of kids being bullied online.

But bullying has always existed. And yes, bullying online can take on more malignant forms due to scale and reach, but we should be focused on the specific conduct, not the clearly incorrect argument that social media is somehow inherently so harmful that it needs a warning.

What frustrates me most of all about this is that Murthy should know better than to base such big decisions on his own feels and anecdotes, especially when nearly all of the evidence disagrees with his beliefs. Murthy is supposed to be following the actual science, not getting swept up by moral panics.

The major problem in all of this is the fact that the warning labels are trying to blame social media for societal problems. No one is questioning that bullying is a problem. No one is questioning that child predators are a problem. What is highly questionable is trying to blame social media for these problems and trying to apply so-called “solutions” on social media that doesn’t address the underlying societal problems. Bombarding users with messages that contain misinformation about how social media is inherently “harmful” isn’t going to solve anything here. It’s like saying that cars are to blame for drinking and driving, therefore, we should ban the use of cars to solve this problem. This despite the fact that it’s the driver that chose to drink and drive, not the car.

The unfortunate part of all of this is the fact that the mainstream media has taken the opportunity to push another wave of moral panic about the issue. For instance, the CBC suggested that the major problem in all of this is that there is a lack of evidence saying that social media is safe and that kids can circumvent age gates:

Last year Murthy warned that there wasn’t enough evidence to show that social media is safe for children and teens. He said at the time that policymakers needed to address the harms of social media the same way they regulate things like car seats, baby formula, medication and other products children use.

To comply with U.S. federal regulation, social media companies already ban kids under 13 from signing up for their platforms — but children have been shown to easily get around the bans, both with and without their parents’ consent.

This, of course, is not the effective attack on social media that the CBC thinks this is. No system is ever going to be 100% safe for everyone. That’s just reality. Schools aren’t 100% safe. The government isn’t 100% safe. The streets aren’t 100% safe. To expect social media to be 100% safe is completely insane. What’s more, the CBC, like the US Surgeon General here, is ignoring all the evidence that says that there has been positive impacts for teenagers thanks to social media. These facts, naturally, get conveniently left out of the CBC article because why act like professional journalists when there’s a good moral panic to push here?

Of course, the CBC wasn’t the only organization trying to push a narrative here. ABC also took Murthy’s comments at face value and presented a one-sided biased story on the issue without really checking any facts:

Murthy acknowledged that on a larger scale, the ball is in Congress’ court — both in implementing warnings, and in providing broader safeguards against social media risks to mental health. Particularly in a tense election year where legislative gridlock is the norm, that poses a problem.

“But as a nation, we can do hard things when it comes to protecting and safeguarding our kids. We should be ready to do everything possible to achieve that end,” Murthy contended.

In the meantime, Murthy is committed to raising awareness in hopes that parents and kids will begin limiting screen time.

USAToday took the opportunity to launch a facts optional rant about social media that is downright laughably bad:

Should you proceed past this warning, you are guaranteed a life of distraction, frustration and time-wasting the likes of which few psychologists could ever have imagined.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has sensibly called on Congress to pass legislation mandating warning labels on social media sites.

In a New York Times essay published Monday, Murthy wrote: “It is time to require a surgeon general’s warning label on social media platforms, stating that social media is associated with significant mental health harms for adolescents. A surgeon general’s warning label, which requires congressional action, would regularly remind parents and adolescents that social media has not been proved safe.”

I agree wholeheartedly with this idea. Social media sites are toxic digital cesspools filled with bullies and hateful trolls and cooking videos that never work out right when I try them. They should be banned like asbestos.

… and by publishing those comments, that USAToday author acknowledges that he is a complete moron who has no idea how the internet works.

Now, to be fair, there was one bright spot we found when looking at the media reaction. That, interestingly enough, came from the Washington Post which was at least open to publishing facts about the issue:

There is no clear scientific evidence that social media is causing mental health issues among young people. Public health officials are pushing for regulation anyway.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy on Monday called for social media platforms to add warnings reminding parents and kids that the apps might not be safe, citing rising rates of mental health problems among children and teens. It follows an advisory Murthy issued last year about the health threat of loneliness for Americans, in which he named social media as a potential driver of social isolation.

But experts — from leading psychologists to free speech advocates — have repeatedly called into question the idea that time on social media like TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat leads directly to poor mental health. The debate is nuanced, they say, and it’s too early to make sweeping statements about kids and social media.

While it is nice to see some actual serious conversation about social media on the large media outlets, articles like this are not that common and often get lost in the sea of garbage reporting from other sources.

As someone who actually has personal experience with severe bullying and harassment, these efforts to blame social media for societal problems is deeply frustrating. I only wished that I could have had social media when I was younger and experiencing some of the worst moments of my life. Social media was was not even remotely well known back in the day and people like myself had to largely suffer in silence and isolation. The only thing I had back in the day was video games because I actively feared running into one of the bullies I faced when I was a kid in public. This is something that did happen, though very rarely as I was literally hiding in my own house.

If I had social media, I could at least find someone outside of the family to communicate with. Unfortunately, it was something I didn’t have and I had to make do with less.

Because of this, the idea that we should be restricting social media for youth frustrates me because I’m certain there are plenty of others who are going through a similar situation with bullying right now. When you don’t have much in the way of support structure, social media gives you options that I never had. Taking those options away will only increase the damage bullying does to younger people. You want to talk about mental health damage, how about the mental health damage that would be caused when a victim of bullying is told by the government that their one avenue of escape must be taken away. That, I think, would prove to be incredibly damaging to a childs mental health.

At any rate, it is disappointing to see this latest round of moral panic sparked by a woefully misinformed piece written by the US Surgeon General. It is clear that he doesn’t really understand the nuances of the internet, freedom of expression, and social media in general. What’s more, his proposed solutions are only cause further harm more than anything else. Hopefully, his comments are limited to making a splash in the news cycle with journalists simply pushing a narrative. If he got his way, I can only see a further deterioration of mental health across the United States.

Drew Wilson on Mastodon, Twitter and Facebook.

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