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The power of a health warning

It’s time to recognize the dangers of social media—especially to young people

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The power of a health warning
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For as long as most WORLD Opinions readers can remember, cigarettes have come with a health warning. In the mid-1960s, the first mandated labels appeared on packaging, advising smokers of the risks of cancer, addiction, and more. How effective these labels have been in changing public behavior is debatable. But the power of language to create a stigma is real and important.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s recent recommendation that social media apps come with mental health warnings may not prove decisive in the ongoing struggle to rein in Big Tech, but it’s still a significant development. For one thing, it’s an unambiguous message from a major public official that digital technology is more like nicotine than ice cream. This alone is a needed wake-up call for communities, especially schools, whose naivete has too long gone under the guise of “computer literacy.”

Could a stigma tied to social media really happen? Putting practical barriers between users and internet content is not as complicated as some pundits suggest. For its first few years, Facebook did not allow users to register for the site without an educational email or established campus network. The surgeon general’s recommendation would not prohibit teens from accessing social media, it would instead mandate something akin to the warnings on packs of cigarettes, requiring users to acknowledge that these products have correlated with mental and emotional problems.

Creating a social stigma around these technologies is the most reliable path forward in pulling the emerging generation out of a phone-size malaise. Directly legislating against the major players, like Meta (owner of Facebook and Instagram) or X (formerly Twitter), is impractical and mistakes the symptom for the disease. The challenge that adults, teens, schools, and everybody else face currently is not just a handful of elite Silicon Valley firms, but what Neil Postman memorably called “Technopoly,” a culturewide ecosystem of addiction and deference to technological culture.

Much of the power of Technopoly comes from these corporations’ power to control narratives about who and what they are. A warning label does not constrain consumer behavior but quietly contradicts a narrative. “Technological immodesty is always an acute danger in Technopoly, which encourages it,” wrote Postman. Our contemporary social media empire is built upon the notion that our lives will be better if our attention, emotions, and relationships are scattered in as many directions as possible. Clinical evidence to the contrary now abounds, and Big Tech’s self-referential marketing deserves to be challenged.

Creating a social stigma around these technologies is the most reliable path forward in pulling the emerging generation out of a phone-size malaise.

Conservative angst over government intervention here is misguided. Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, is correct when he suggests that major social media companies are more like public broadcasters than private businesses. “Through their omnipresence in our lives and their algorithmic manipulation of the information we see,” Carr observes, “they exert an influence over society at least as strong as that of radio and TV companies in the twentieth century.” Measures to educate and inform the public about the nature and effects of these technologies are not antithetical to free speech or markets. They are, in fact, crucial to keeping speech and markets free from the invisible tyranny of a few conglomerates.

Nor should conservatives overestimate how social media can be repurposed for their causes. In recent years, movements such as the dissident right have embraced social media and digital tech as fitting vehicles for anti-institutional moods. There may even be a temptation on the right to gainsay this recommendation since it comes from the Biden administration. This would be a mistake for two reasons. First, the genetic fallacy is bad and conservatives shouldn’t commit it. Second, the attitudes and habits embedded in Technopoly will always tilt users toward secular progressive visions. An online presence can be useful when paired with a focused objective, but much of internet culture is addictive and immersive and tends toward the weakening of families, churches, and societies.

That’s why stigmatizing social media exposure among young people is an intrinsically conservative goal. Of course, such stigma has limits. The mid-20th century efforts to stigmatize smoking were not as effective as advocates hoped, and current data still plots cigarette smoking largely among class lines. Social media and smartphone addiction may very well follow a similar pattern, ensnaring lower-income teens while upper-class families break free. Thus, there’s no replacement for wisdom and discipleship at the family level. Parents must start by asking tough questions about their own digital habits since the behavior that kids witness at home will always be more potent in the heart than the instructions they hear.

Nevertheless, the surgeon general’s recommendation could create a powerful plausibility structure that will shape the next generation. It’s a profound and worthwhile goal that deserves bipartisan political support and leadership from Christians who know the goodness of God’s real world.

Samuel D. James

Samuel serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books. He is a regular contributor to First Things and The Gospel Coalition, and his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and National Review. Samuel and his wife, Emily, live in Louisville, Ky., with their two children.

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