Posted on July 5, 2023
A consensus is growing among experts that apps such as Snapchat are bad for children’s health – there is a clear case for regulatio
WhatsApp is for old people. That is, people over 30. At least that’s what my first-year medical students tell me. WhatsApp has become the realm of government backchats about Covid-19 policy, or family groups sharing graduation photos and past-their-prime memes. Young people, especially teenagers, communicate through Snapchat, an app that reaches 90% of 13- to 24-year-olds and 75% of 13- to 34-year-olds across the UK. It has more than 21 million active users in Britain per month, which is almost one-third of the population, and each accesses the app on average more than 50 times a day.
If we go back to the 1980s and 1990s, parenting was often about keeping children physically safe. A moody 14-year-old wanting to be alone in their room was a normal thing– in fact this was sufficient to protect them. Parents had clear oversight over who their kids were around at home, and the physical materials they were consuming.
Fast-forward to 2023 and children are in their rooms at home, but while physically safe, they’re exposed to an entire virtual world with almost no regulation over the content they see, how much time they’re spending on devices or the boundary between necessary social communication with friends and a much darker world of harmful or pornographic material, and predatory influencers.
Compounding the problems facing teenagers and parents is the fact that apps are often designed deliberately to be addictive, or used compulsively. They regularly turn social interactions into games – like Snapchat’s “Snapstreak” feature that scores a user for the number of consecutive days they share a picture with each contact, encouraging them to be available on the app constantly. Apps also come with many safety and oversight concerns. Snapchat popularised disappearing messages, meaning parents can’t check what their child has been viewing or posting, and many apps share the user’s location with others by default. Teenagers and children may not even know that they’re sharing live data on their location throughout the day.
The potential harms of these apps are increasingly being called out. The US surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, issued an “advisory” last month on the effects social media use has on young people’s mental health. He said: “The most common question parents ask me is, ‘is social media safe for my kids?’ The answer is that we don’t have enough evidence to say it’s safe, and in fact, there is growing evidence that social media use is associated with harm to young people’s mental health. We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis, and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis.”
The president of the American Medical Association, Jack Resneck Jr, used even stronger words: “With near-universal social media use by America’s young people, these apps and sites introduce profound risk and mental health harms in ways we are only now beginning to fully understand.” The evidence of its mental health impact is concerning.
The latest Centers for Disease Control Youth Risk Behaviour survey in 2021 illustrates the scale of the problem: 42% of high school students surveyed had experienced persistent feelings of sadness over the last year, while 22% had seriously contemplated suicide. Research cited by Murthy shows that adolescents who spend more than three hours per day on social media have double the risk of depression and anxiety. Furthermore, 46% of adolescents aged between 13 and 17 say social media makes them feel worse about their body image, and 64% of that age group are “often” or “sometimes” exposed to hate-based content. Yet children themselves feel unsure of how to cope: one-third or more of girls aged 11 to 15 say they feel “addicted” to certain apps, and more than half of teenagers say they would find it hard to give up social media.
A study by researchers at the University of Bath looked at the mental health effects of a week-long social media break, which on average freed up about nine hours of their week. Even after only seven days, participants had significant improvements in wellbeing, depression and anxiety compared to a control group.
There is growing consensus among health experts about the negative chronic health effects of social media use. And yet we are largely leaving it up to parents, and other concerned adults, to find solutions to a side-effect of universal smartphones. The burden is on the government to recognise the negative health impact that certain social media apps have, create policies to regulate companies to ensure they’re not selling a dangerous product to children, and work towards collective solutions. This could include working with these companies to make design and development decisions in their product that prioritise safety and health.
Companies may resist this because it’s in their financial interest to keep users on their platforms for as long as possible. Screen time is their revenue stream: 99% of Snapchat revenue is from displaying advertising to its users; the figure for Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, is about 98%. The longer that kids spend on their platform, the more money they make. And the cost, maybe, is paid in the mental health of the next generation of society.
THANKS TO: https://stuartbramhall.wordpress.com/2023/07/05/social-media-can-be-as-harmful-to-children-as-smoking-or-gambling-why-is-this-allowed/