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Is a warning label for social media enough?


The U.S. Surgeon General wants to add warning labels to social media platforms. Vivek Murthy said labels are needed to help fight a mental health crisis among America's young people. Lisa Damour has written extensively about the impact of social media on teens. She's a clinical psychologist and author of "The Emotional Lives Of Teenagers: Raising connected, Capable, And Compassionate Adolescents." Lisa, thanks for coming on the program.

LISA DAMOUR: Thank you for having me.

PFEIFFER: We know, both anecdotally and from the data, that there has been a huge spike in teen anxiety. How much is social media a contributor to that?

DAMOUR: We have reason to think that it plays a part. It is not the total explanation, but we do have reason to think that there are aspects of social media, and especially for how some young people use social media, that contributes to overall distress and psychological distress in young people.

PFEIFFER: And tell us more about that. What is it doing to their emotions or their brains?

DAMOUR: Well, what we worry about are a few different things. First, we just worry about what we call displacement, that too much time on social media gets in the way of things that we know are good for kids, like getting a lot of sleep, spending time with people and interacting, you know, face to face, being physically active, focusing on their schoolwork in a meaningful way. So that's one place that we worry about, that they are missing out on things that are good for overall growth.

We also worry about the toxic content that they are inevitably exposed to on social media. There is no getting around the fact, given especially the algorithmically driven models that we're working with, that if a kid is on social media, they are going to be exposed to hate content, to violent content, to degrading content, to content that promotes unhealthy views of the body or the self. So these are the forces that we worry about and that we need to protect kids from.

PFEIFFER: Kids develop at different stages. Depending on what age they're at, they might absorb the world in a different way. What is the difference between how, say, a 13-year-old and a 17-year-old might be able to handle social media or even an 8-year-old who has a phone?

DAMOUR: I was really glad to see Dr. Murthy's recommendation of waiting until at least after middle school to give kids social media. I agree completely. And we have a neurological reason to think in this way. Around age 13 or 14 - so right at the end of middle school - the brain takes a great leap forward in development. It gains all sorts of new capacities, including the ability to be much more skeptical, to question what is put in front of one. And we want kids to have this capacity fully in place before they're looking at things online that are presented to them by social media. We want them questioning, like, what is this? Why is this being shown to me? What does this mean? Do I want to believe this? And younger kids, however bright they are, are still too concrete in their thinking.

PFEIFFER: But even if 13-year-olds or late middle-schoolers have the benefit of skepticism, they're also at a point where their hormones are exploding. Their emotions are so intense. So how do those two things balance out?

DAMOUR: It can be pretty messy, right? That there's a lot going on, and they can get really pulled into things that they don't need to be engaged with and shouldn't be engaged with. So one of the things I always advocate is to go really slow, and ideally, start with texting. Kids do need to have social connections. Social isolation is bad for kids too. A lot of kids - 12, 13, 14, even older - can maintain all of the social ties they need to with texting. And for me, texting's like JV social media. See how a kid does with texting.

PFEIFFER: Before they move to Instagram or Twitter or TikTok. Yeah.

DAMOUR: Exactly. If they handle it well, if they're reasonable, if they, you know, manage it appropriately, when they need social media to stay in touch with their peers, adults can feel more comfortable allowing it. But if the kid ends up in the meanest text thread ever, they're telling us they're not ready for social media.

PFEIFFER: But the reality is many kids are doing far more than texting. They're on so many social media platforms. So this is coming at them all the time, from many directions. Given all that, how much of a difference, if any, do you think that putting a warning label on social media would make?

DAMOUR: I think it's a great first start. And the other thing that is really important about the Surgeon General's recommendations is that he's calling for legislation. He's calling for congressional action to get in there and help with regulating what kids can be exposed to.

PFEIFFER: Let's go back to the warning label. If all it is is just words slapped on a social media site, essentially saying be careful, what practical effect does that have?

DAMOUR: I think it's a start. But I think that we do need to then offer parents very clear guidance about what to do next. And in Dr. Murthy's op-ed, he made terrific recommendations. So things like not having phones in schools during the school day, having phones not be present at bedtime. I'm a big fan of not having phones in rooms overnight. Keeping phones away from the times when we're in face-to-face interaction with one another. These are things that are adjustments for some families, but they're doable. And we have every reason to think on the scientific side will make a material difference in overall mental health for kids.

PFEIFFER: Lisa, you said earlier that social isolation can be bad, of course. So is there a risk to keeping kids away from social media? Could it isolate them socially, since that's where so much of their social lives exist today?

DAMOUR: At certain ages, yes. I think that there does come a time where all of the plans are being made on a social media platform, and kids who don't have access to that platform don't know what's happening. So that time does come. But that time doesn't usually come at 12. You know, often, it comes a little bit later in development. We also know, though, for some populations where they are marginalized within their communities, having access to social media and the ability to be in touch with kids who share their marginalized status is critical for their emotional health, and in many cases, actually life-saving.

PFEIFFER: Oh, absolutely. We tend to focus on the destructive effects of social media, but for some kids, they thrive on it. It's where they find their people. It's where they get confidence. So what could the impact of a warning label be for that group of kids who benefit from social media?

DAMOUR: Well, the way we want to think about this is social media is risky, right? That we know that. And as much as social media is in many ways still new to us, and certainly those of us raising teenagers right now, we did not have social media, so it can feel all very unfamiliar. The good news is teenagers and risk is not a new topic. We know a lot about that. And so parents and caregivers can use what they know about their kid and the risk to make a good judgment. So one way to think about this - and this is not a perfect analogy, but it can get us somewhere down the road - is what if we think about social media like a high school party, right? Kids want to be there, their friends are there, and things can go wrong.

OK. So who should go to high school parties? Well, probably not middle-schoolers, right? And for the reasons we've talked about, middle-schoolers are still neurologically too young to have good judgment in these places. What about younger high-schoolers, ninth graders, tenth graders? OK. Kids with fantastic judgment, and kids who are going to call an adult if something goes wrong, those are kids we can feel more at ease letting out into the world of high school parties and/or social media. So adults know their teenagers, and I think they should be assessing these two questions. What's my kid's judgment? And will my kid let me know if there's something wrong here? And based on those answers, adults can use what they know about their kid to decide how much risk exposure is worth considering.

PFEIFFER: That's Lisa Damour, a psychologist, author and a consultant on the new Pixar movie "Inside Out 2," which deals with teens and anxiety. Lisa, thank you. This is such an important issue.

DAMOUR: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.