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Does science back up the surgeon general's call for a warning label on social media?


U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wants warning labels on social media. Murthy wrote this week in a New York Times opinion piece that social media is, quote, "associated with significant mental health harms for adolescents" and said that a warning label will help better inform parents about the risks. But are warnings is something that are necessary and how damaging is social media to young people? To answer that, we're joined now by a clinical psychologist who studies social media and kids. Michaeline Jensen is an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Welcome to the program.

MICHAELINE JENSEN: Thanks for having me.

FADEL: So based on the research, how damaging is social media actually to adolescents' health?

JENSEN: So overall, the research around how social media impacts mental health for young people is really nuanced. And the conclusions are not consistent with a very simple social media harms mental health warning message as proposed by the Surgeon General this week.


JENSEN: In general, it's complicated, basically, I guess is the answer.

FADEL: Yeah.

JENSEN: And we can't conclude that at population level, social media causes changes in adolescent mental health.

FADEL: So is there something to the idea of putting a warning label on social media? Are there certain sites that may damage kids or hurt their mental health and others that don't?

JENSEN: So social - or warning labels rather more broadly can be effective in the sense that they bring awareness, and they often point people towards what to do instead of a risky activity. So we don't know at all that social media in general causes mental health harms, nor indeed even that certain platforms are more harmful. Rather what we know is that some types of engagement on different platforms that are social media, can be harmful to adolescent mental health. So take, for example, engaging in unhealthy social comparisons - so, for example, around physical appearance or bodies, physical bodies. That can be harmful to self-esteem and body image and even disordered eating. But that is not the only way that young people are engaging on social media, and indeed, many youth are not engaging in social media in that way at all.

FADEL: So, you say it's complicated. I mean, what do you think overall of what Murthy's proposing here?

JENSEN: So the idea of a warning label, I think is interesting in the sense that he's drawing attention, and I want to applaud him for this, to a really significant mental health challenges that are currently faced by adolescents today. That part is very important, and I applaud him for that. However, mental health difficulties themselves are complicated, and they never have a single cause. So it's hard to say that slapping a warning label on social media will do a measurable amount to improve adolescent mental health.

FADEL: Are there things about social media that have been good when it comes to adolescents engagements online there?

JENSEN: There certainly are. So, indeed, young people tend to report that their online experiences are more positive than negative, and certain types of engagement on social media are particularly beneficial. So, for instance, extent to which young people are engaging on social media for social interaction and connection, especially for youth who are experiencing social isolation offline. So we saw that very clearly during the pandemic, that that helps them. We also see that young people who are marginalized in some way in their offline lives - they benefit pretty considerably from online social support and social networks, especially if they lack those supports in their offline lives. So we've seen that type of evidence for say LGBTQ+ use who may not have great supports in their face-to-face environments or with their families, but who find real connection and support in their online social networks.

FADEL: So you mentioned that warning labels on the face of it are good in the sense of bringing awareness to issues around a product. But you talked about how complicated this is. Are there interventions here that you think would be more effective than a warning label?

JENSEN: Yeah, so awareness will only get you so far. Young people are pretty aware that there are purported links between social media and mental health. I think that what would be really beneficial to young people and their parents would be some evidence-based guidance on how they can engage online in ways that do work for them. So parents need guidance around how to maximize these potential benefits and minimize the potential harms. They don't really need another person just telling them to watch out without any guidance on how to do that.

FADEL: Yeah. What about the limiting of cell phone use? I mean, on Tuesday, the Los Angeles School Board approved a ban on students using cell phones during the school day. What does research show us about how cell phone use in school affects learning, mental health?

JENSEN: Yeah, this is a little bit of different question in the sense that this would restrict access to cell phones specifically, not just social media. But social media is certainly one of the main ways that young people use their smartphones.

FADEL: Right.

JENSEN: This is still a pretty new question, and we don't have a ton of kind of experimental or empirical evidence on this, but we do know a little bit from research in other countries that have started rolling out these bans on how they might work. We do know that young people and their parents tend to be perceiving these both as positively and negatively. So, for instance, teachers and parents in the Netherlands say that they're liking it, that they have this ban that they rolled out this year. They say that their kids are perhaps less distracted and connecting more with their peers. But young people see both advantages and disadvantages. They say that they're less distracted and more connected to their peers face-to-face. But maybe it's a little bit more chaotic during passing periods. So I think only time will tell as we see evidence about whether learning and other outcomes can improve with things like cell phone bans on school campuses.

FADEL: Michaeline Jensen is an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Thank you for your time.

JENSEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.