Social media and the safety of children
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Of all the duties that are incumbent on civil societies, surely the protection of their most vulnerable must rank near the top of the list.
There are none more vulnerable than children; it is they who depend most on us for their safety and well-being, and whose trust we, as adults, must seek never to betray.
With these immutable truths as a backdrop, serious consideration must be given to the U.S. surgeon general’s issuance this week of an advisory on social media’s impact on children and youth. Dr. Vivek H. Murthy lays out in no uncertain terms the perils faced by young social-media users and the abiding obligation for parents, governments and social-media purveyors to mitigate those harms.
“The bottom line is we do not have enough evidence to conclude that social media is sufficiently safe for our kids,” Dr. Murthy writes. “In fact, there is increasing evidence that social-media use during adolescence — a critical stage of brain development — is associated with harm to mental health and well-being.”
The advisory cites rather daunting figures related to social-media use among American children and youth — numbers which, given the close cultural and technological ties between our nations, would inevitably also reflect how social media is consumed in Canada.
Nearly all teenagers in the United States (95 per cent) use social-media platforms; two-thirds use them daily and more than one-third use them “almost constantly.” Almost 50 per cent of teens say social media negatively affects their perception of their bodies. Nearly 60 per cent of adolescent girls say they’ve been contacted by strangers online in ways that made them feel uncomfortable.
“In light of the ongoing youth mental-health crisis,” Dr. Murthy declares, “it is no longer possible to ignore social media’s potential contribution to the pain that millions of children and families are experiencing.”
“In fact, there is increasing evidence that social-media use during adolescence… is associated with harm to mental health and well-being.”–Dr. Vivek H. Murthy
Social-media companies have sunk their hooks deep into 21st-century society, and young people — many of whom have never known a world without social media — have paid the highest price for those companies’ ruthless pursuit of profits.
While it’s true that, as Dr. Murthy asserts, we do not know enough about social media’s intrusions into adolescent development, what we do know is that the companies in question seem more concerned about mining and monetizing data and maximizing online usage than with ensuring their youngest users are kept safe from harm.
Dr. Murthy states part of the challenge of imposing safety standards on social media is that those who own the platforms have not afforded researchers access to the data needed to fully assess the effects of social media. As a result, parents remain unaware of the full extent of the dangers their kids face and are therefore unable to adequately protect them.
It’s time for governments, both individually and in a broader, united fashion, to impose health and safety standards on social-media platforms in the same way they set them for more mundane physical products such as toys and kids’ car seats. It’s also time to consider minimum-age requirements for accessing social media.
“In light of the ongoing youth mental-health crisis… it is no longer possible to ignore social media’s potential contribution to the pain that millions of children and families are experiencing.”–Dr. Vivek H. Murthy
And it’s time that social-media companies — which for too long have used their massive size and wealth, along with the ethereal nature of their products, to shield them from accountability — to be held answerable for the damages they cause and ordered to do more to protect the young users on whom they have so profitably preyed.
To varying degrees and with lamentably limited success, parents have tried to protect their children from social media’s cumulative harms. As the surgeon general rightly declares, “They shouldn’t have to do it alone.”