The warning parents need about social media

Opinion by Kara Alaimo

Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo is an associate professor of communication at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her book “Over the Influence: Why Social Media Is Toxic for Women and Girls — And How We Can Take It Back” was recently published by Alcove Press. Follow her on InstagramFacebook and X. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.CNN — 

A year after his landmark advisory warning about the dangers social media poses to young people, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy upped the ante on Monday by calling for mandated warning labels on social media apps.

“The mental health crisis among young people is an emergency — and social media has emerged as an important contributor,” he wrote in a New York Times op-ed.

It would be easy to dismiss his call as insufficient, given the nature of the problem and the fact that the warning labels aren’t guaranteed to be implemented, or even visible. Congress will need to pass the labelling mandate, and after that, since social media apps aren’t tangible products, it could be easy for social networks to bury the warning in lengthy terms of service agreements that most people probably don’t read.

But the warning should still serve as a huge wakeup call for parents, Congress and indeed our whole society that we need to act to protect our kids’ wellbeing on social networks. And previous surgeon general warnings have showed awareness can be a powerful part of change.

The most famous surgeon general’s warning, contained in a 1964 report, concerned the health effects of smoking. The following year, Congress passed a law requiring health warnings on cigarette packaging. In a 1958 Gallup survey, just 44% of Americans thought smoking caused cancer. By 1968, just three years after Congress mandated the warning, the number had risen to 78%. All the attention generated by the warning is widely believed to have had a major impact on these changes in public awareness.

If Congress acts now, it could force a similar public reckoning about the associations between kids’ use of social media and negative mental health outcomes. Murthy cited a 2019 study that found that young people who spend more than three hours per day on social media are at a greater risk of having mental health issues. And he pointed out that young people spend an average of 4.8 hours on social media each day, according to a 2023 Gallup survey.

But parents shouldn’t wait for Congress to act. There are things they can start doing now to help protect their children.

As I’ve said before, it’s a good idea to wait until kids are 16 years old before allowing them to use social networks. Unfortunately, once a young person’s friends are on social media, their parents often feel pressured to let the child use the apps so they’re not excluded from social conversations and plans. That’s why I argue in my new book that parents need to band together with the parents of their kids’ friends and collectively agree that their children won’t use social media until they’re older.


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Once kids are on social media, it’s important to remind them that a lot of the photos they see of other people’s bodies are heavily filtered and don’t set realistic expectations for what they should look like. It’s not surprising that a 2022 survey by the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital that Murthy cited found that nearly half of young people report that social media makes them feel worse about their own bodies.

It’s also a good idea to help kids find healthy content and communities online — and avoid the potentially very dangerous ones that promote eating disorders, suicide and other harmful behavior. One savvy way to do this is to sit down with your children and search for content together about issues and topics they care about. Since algorithms are designed to show users content they think the user likes, that should prompt social networks to show your children more similar content in the future, even when you’re not with them.

Parents should also warn kids about why they should never share nude images of themselves: their so-called “sexts” could be hacked or the person to whom they send them could later decide to share them online. As I warn in my book, when a woman or girl’s nude images end up online, it puts her at risk of sexual assault, depression and suicide and makes it harder for her to date or get a job.

It’s also a good idea to let kids get together with their friends offline, where they may have safer experiences than they would online, and make sure they have plenty of healthy offline activities to do. Kids generally can’t be on their phones while they’re playing sports or a musical instrument. All of this can help reduce their screentime.

Finally, parents should establish rules for when phones can be used (for example, after homework is done and not at the dinner table) in consultation with their kids, who will have reasonable ideas and exceptions they would like to the rules (using their phones for homework, for example). And parents should be good role models in how they use their own phones, whether it’s by putting them away to give their children their full attention, or not oversharing information about their own lives online.

Murthy is right to call on Congress to put warning labels on social networks. This could serve as the alarm parents need to protect their kids from the harmful effects of social media. But parents shouldn’t wait for it. By not giving kids smartphones until they’re older, limiting the amount of time kids spend on social networks, warning kids of the dangers they face online and helping them find healthy communities, we can help protect our kids from some of the negative effects of social media. We shouldn’t wait for one more notification to take action.

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