Should social media come with a health warning?

Other studies have found that social media has no effect on mental health. In a study published last year, Plackett and her colleagues surveyed 3,228 children in the UK to see how their social media use and mental well-being changed over time. The children were first surveyed when they were aged between 12 and 13, and again when they were 14 to 15 years old.

Plackett expected to find that social media use would harm the young participants. But when she conducted the second round of questionnaires, she found that was not the case. “Time spent on social media was not related to mental-health outcomes two years later,” she tells me.

Other research has found that social media use can be beneficial to young people, especially those from minority groups. It can help some avoid loneliness, strengthen relationships with their peers, and find a safe space to express their identities, says Plackett. Social media isn’t only for socializing, either. Today, young people use these platforms for news, entertainment, school, and even (in the case of influencers) business.

“It’s such a mixed bag of evidence,” says Plackett. “I’d say it’s hard to draw much of a conclusion at the minute.”

In his article, Murthy calls for a warning label to be applied to social media platforms, stating that “social media is associated with significant mental-health harms for adolescents.”

But while Murthy draws comparisons to the effectiveness of warning labels on tobacco products, bingeing on social media doesn’t have the same health risks as chain-smoking cigarettes. We have plenty of strong evidence linking smoking to a range of diseases, including gum disease, emphysema, and lung cancer, among others. We know that smoking can shorten a person’s life expectancy. We can’t make any such claims about social media, no matter what was written in that Daily Mail article.

Health warnings aren’t the only way to prevent any potential harms associated with social media use, as Murthy himself acknowledges. Tech companies could go further in reducing or eliminating violent and harmful content, for a start. And digital literacy education could help inform children and their caregivers how to alter the settings on various social media platforms to better control the content children see, and teach them how to assess the content that does make it to their screens.

I like the sound of these measures. They might even help me put an end to the early-morning Christmas songs. 

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