Surgeon General Warning on Social Media — What Parents Should Know - The North County Moms
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This story originally appeared on The Local Moms Network.

Recently, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy announced plans to recommend warning labels for social media similar to cigarette and alcohol ones. He told NPR that the warnings would bring awareness of the risks and hopefully deter young users, but that was only part of the change needed, and part of the onus was on the platforms themselves.  Said Murthy: “Right now, young people are being exposed to serious harms online, to violence and sexual content, to bullying and harassment, and to features that would seek to manipulate their developing brains into excessive use.” He also called pitting a teenage brain against product developers an “unfair fight”.

 We asked Delaney Ruston, a physician and filmmaker behind Screenagers, what she thought of the surgeon general warning on social media, and how it may help parents keep their kids safe.

What did you think when you heard news of the surgeon general warning on social media?
I’m a definite proponent of this, as one of many steps we need to properly transform the tech world ecosystem our kids live in.

Will there be tangible benefits from a simple warning?
To me the number one impact is helping parents, by having one more tool in conversations. They can say that the number one physician in the country has looked at the data and he says it warrants a warning.

Over the past 12 years I’ve spoken to thousands of kids and parents. We know about predators who have groomed kids into sexual exploitation and sextortion. Private moments have been made public and gone viral. There are serious risks and this is another way of talking about those risks, without sounding like a broken record parent.

What separates social media from other forms of screen time, in terms of risk?
When you have an interactive, spreadable media being offered to young people who are going through a developmental stage where social centrality is crucial and appropriate, it makes this  stage of life exponentially more risky.

There is constant comparison as well as amplified aggression. Amplified aggression could be not being invited into a group chat, being dissed in a group chat, being ghosted.  Then there are bigger forms of amplified aggression; in Screenagers we saw a 13 year old girl get asked by a boy to send a photo in her bra and then it got distributed to the school.  This amplified aggression can be made up of small events or one big one.

The typical teen is on social media five hours a day, and if you figure that’s 35 hours a week, that leads to a major sleep deficit that has an impact on their developing brain.

What do you think surprises parents about social media?
The big thing is that free time becomes screen time – and this is important to remember heading into summer. Unless we are intentional, young people will flock to TikTok and the rest – we want to be entertained as s species.

It’s a growing movement of parents who are finding that inner strength of vulnerability to say hey, we’re going to have a tech free night for our teens. Or for younger kids, we’re having a playdate, but please leave the iPad at home. These platforms are so compelling for the human brain. If we’re not intentional, you’re going to be faced with more clamoring for it.

Okay – so we all known screen time is bad. But what do you tell parents who don’t want their kids left out?
It’s not actually simply bad. There are multiple ways that connecting to others is helpful. Our job is to increase the positives of social media and decrease the harmful parts. Being included is incredibly important which is why parents allow kids younger than 13 to be on social media.

You can find ways that they can be interconnected to each other with basic texting – many young people will accept that. If they’re allowed to be on social, it’s really working to limit the time and checking in about it. As a family you can create rules around these tech tools and not grant  24-hour access. For instance, no phones at dinner, bedtime, or when you’re in the car and have the ability to be talking to each other.

Remember that backtracking is okay – when we find out as parents data that is compelling and we change our policies, that’s actually great modeling for our kids. If we see our 12-year-old is on Snapchat we can say I’ve learned this science and I’m not okay with this. I know you’ve been on it, but let’s go get ice cream and  talk about other ways we are going to connect.


More from The Local Moms Network:

Screen-Free Activities (for Younger Kids)

What a Psychotherapist Learned from Parenting a Child with Anxiety

7 Ways to Beat Summer Boredom

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