Warning labels on social media? Local doctors agree it’s time for a change

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has renewed calls for social media to come with warning labels, similar to that of the labels on cigarettes, saying social media poses a threat to young people’s mental health, and local experts agree.

“Social media can expose young people to harassment, abuse, exploitation and extreme content. Congress must act to make platforms safer and must require companies to share all data on the health effects of social media with the public,” said Murthy on X, formerly known as Twitter.

This comes one year after Murthy first issued an advisory on the effect of social media on youth mental health.

Social media use is prevalent among young people, with up to 95% of youth ages 13 to 17 saying that they use a social media platform, and more than a third saying that they use social media “almost constantly,” according to 2022 data from the Pew Research Center.

“We always kind of encourage this idea of everything in moderation, and it’s really hard for kids to moderate,” said Dr. Laura Meyers, a provider in the psychology department at Dayton Children’s.

Children need their parents to help them do things in moderation, and warning labels can help parents understand that social media use is something they need to monitor in their children, she said.

“This isn’t just a free-for-all thing that’s going to be fine for your kids if they just do it at their own leisure,” Meyers said.

Some parents don’t understand how children can have somewhat addictive behavior to things like social media and electronics, she said.

Social media can be a trigger for dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain, often being labeled as “the reward” neurotransmitter, although other neurotransmitters also play a part in that feeling, according to Dr. Ryan Mast, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who is an assistant professor at Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine.

Neurotransmitters are chemical transmitters, allowing cells to communicate throughout the body and nervous system, according to the Cleveland Clinic, and dopamine can release a feeling of pleasure or satisfaction.

“The brain is wired to reward behavior that is good for the body (like exercise), so that the reward causes us to want to repeat that activity (exercise again). One of the dangers of illicit substances is that some of them can increase dopamine artificially in the brain leading a person to want to repeat that potentially dangerous activity,” Mast said.

Dopamine pathways can get going with social media, such as if the user gets “likes” or sees something they enjoy, Meyers said.

“The problem is that can be so powerful that we kind of lose sight of other things, and so we’re not seeking out those feel good hormones and neurotransmitters in other ways because we have them so easily accessible in social media,” Meyers said.

Experiencing dopamine hit after dopamine hit while using social media can lead to endless scrolling, potentially impacting other parts of the user’s life, such as work, school, relationships, etc., Mast said.

Social media may also perpetuate body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviors, social comparison and low self-esteem, especially among adolescent girls, according to Murthy’s advisory.

Social media can also expose children to content that their parents may not find is appropriate for children.

“We have decided as a society that kids are not ready for certain activities in life,” said Mast, who used the examples of children needing to be a certain age to watch scary movies, buy certain video games, drive and vote.

“Adults are tasked with protecting kids who might not see the danger of certain activities. So, we have developed rating systems for movies and video games,” Mast said.

Technology also advances faster than science can determine the effects of it, such as how can upvotes or “likes” on social media impact happiness and mental health, he said.

Social media can also make it difficult to escape conflict among peers.

“Prior to social media, a school bully likely wasn’t coming to a kid’s home to continue the bullying into the night. With social media, bullying can be 24 hours per day,” Mast said.

Putting a warning on social media is worthwhile, Mast said.

“Even though social media can positively impact kids’ lives, social media usage is also contributing to the national youth mental health crisis,” Mast said.

Some recommendations for parents is to restrict where and when children can use social media, such as limiting social media scrolling in their bedrooms, especially at night. Parents should also model good behavior, he said.

For children who are too young for social media but still need a phone to call their parents, “then a ‘boring’ flip-phone will work fine,” Mast said.

Parents can set a requirement for a password to be needed to download any new apps on a smartphone, preventing children from downloading anything not approved by their parents.

Parents should also listen to their children when they need someone to talk to, Mast said, giving them a place to talk about the challenges in their lives

“Parents don’t always have to fix a kid’s problem, but they should be available to listen because feeling alone in the world can be a sad and scary feeling,” Mast said.

How to get help

If you are going through a mental health crisis, call 988, the national Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

For resources for families, visit Dayton Children’s website.

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