Warning labels for social media are good, but need backup

NASHVILLE (BP) — Like the money-back guarantee in an infomercial, words mean little without the action to back them up.

On June 17 U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called for warning labels to be placed on social media, saying in a post to X it is “an important contributor” to a youth mental health crisis.

“Congress’ top priority should be making these platforms safer by passing legislation to protect kids’ health, safety and privacy,” he said.

Among those cheering the surgeon general’s actions, there is also some doubt as to its potential impact. Similar steps in the past appear to have been at least somewhat effective when it came to tobacco products. Listening to questionable music, not so much.

Murthy’s statement on Monday comes a year after his release of an advisory about social media and youth mental health.

“I love that the surgeon general says this, but unless the social media platform is being held legally accountable for the things that take place there, I think it becomes an exercise in futility,” said Chris Martin, director of content for Moody Radio and author of “The Wolf in Their Pockets: 13 Ways the Social Internet Threatens the People You Lead.”

The result is “warning-labeling” things and getting the same amount of attention that comes with FBI anti-piracy screens at the start of a DVD, he pointed out. That said, such a step could be helpful in a “collective reflection on how social media is negatively affecting all of us, but especially young people.”

On the same day of the surgeon general’s announcement, Yale Medicine re-issued an updated parent’s guide on how social media affects teens’ mental health.

Among suggestions such as keeping devices out of the bedroom and lines of communication with your child open, parents need to model a responsible relationship with technology.

“It’s central,” said Martin. Just as parents often abdicate their roles as key disciplers of Scripture to the church, he added, they can make the same mistake with it comes to social media and technology.

“In the life of a child, it is the parents above anyone else in overseeing their children’s relationship with social media, the internet and technology,” Martin said. “This requires them to have a relatively healthy relationship themselves. They don’t have to be perfect, but it’s going to be hard to tell your 16-year-old daughter to get off Instagram at the dinner table if the 46-year-old mother is on Facebook at the same time.

“Parents need to lead by example here, or their words are going to ring hollow and hypocritical.”

The dinner table, of course, isn’t the only place where it’s important to be focused on something other than getting another Like. Phones at camp have become a point of debate among student ministries, with it becoming more common to ban their presence altogether.

“I’m all for the warning labels,” said Nick Hampton, associate pastor of youth at First Baptist Church in Quitman, Ga. “We don’t allow phones at camp because they are a major distraction.”

Taking it out of the equation, he said, led to one of his students getting saved at camp last week.

“Part of the reason he gave for hearing from God was that he is usually too distracted by his phone,” Hampton said. “Our students didn’t even ask for their phones back when we got back on the bus to head home. We have to help them say no to social media just like we encourage them to say no to other things.”

Parents can set the example, Martin said, and thereby help children steer clear of the ways social media impacts them specifically.

“It affects them differently in a number of ways,” he said. “They’re still forming their sense of self … with all of these different input sources talking at them. It’s a pressure young people feel that their parents didn’t. There’s a social pressure you feel as a teenager that you don’t feel at 35 or 45.”

“We are slowly creating addicts to these micro dopamine hits that they get from doom scrolling online,” said Hampton. “Social media is shortening attention spans and keeping our teenagers from engaging with the world around them. I think parents need to take a hard look at what they are allowing their teenagers to engage in online.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Scott Barkley is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press.)

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