from the for-fuck’s-sake-stop-it dept
A few months back I attended a workshop regarding keeping children on the internet safe, and at some point a debate broke out over whether social media was “more like” cigarettes or chocolate (i.e., obviously addictive and harmful or just a little unhealthy in large doses), and a long term trust & safety executive who was in the room told me it was driving them crazy, because it’s just not an analogy that works. Chocolate and cigarettes are things you literally consume in your body, and they have a clear, and pretty well understood, impact on your body.
Social media… is speech.
Speech can have an impact on people: it can motivate them, inspire them, scare them, etc. And sometimes those impacts can be negative. But speech alone is not something you metabolize. It does not change your body. It does not poison you.
It is not a toxin.
And that’s why it’s so frustrating that this analogy keeps popping up. The latest is from Ashwin Vasan, the Commission of the New York City Department of Health. He could be dealing with all sorts of actual health problems facing New Yorkers, but instead decided to pen a nonsense opinion piece falsely declaring social media the equivalent of known toxins.
The title gives away the game:
“We must treat social media like the toxin that it is”
He then uses his own children as the example of how social media is bad (which makes me wonder how his kids feel about being props here).
As a parent of three young children, I see every day how young people have been conditioned to reach for their for phones and devices. The fault lines of this tectonic shift are in my home, and homes like it throughout our nation.
Yes, parents having some control over their kids use of devices and online services is a challenge, but that’s way different than calling it a “toxin.” And, having spent plenty of time around adults, many of them seem to feel “conditioned to reach for their phones and devices” as well, and yet that’s somehow considered just fine, but with kids it’s somehow a problem?
Vasan then admits that social media might actually be good for some kids (while tons of studies actually show it’s good for way more kids than it’s bad for), but then immediately insists that social media is “uniquely harmful” to kids (which is not, actually, what any study has shown).
Real communities can form online, and virtual kinship can help young people explore the world and their own identities. It is clear that social media is now a part of our lives, and so all-out bans or prohibition is neither realistic nor advised. But the evidence is clear that unregulated, unfettered access to all kinds of social media and its content is uniquely harmful to children. Much as toys have package safety inserts for children and parents, we need information and protections for social media.
The link there to “uniquely harmful to children” is not any study that actually supports that claim. It’s to an NPR radio program in which some parents driven by a moral panic have pushed senators to pass legislation to “protect the children online.”
Except, again, all of the evidence suggests that this is wrong. The evidence says that social media is not super dangerous for most kids. It says that there are some kids who have trouble dealing with it, and attention should be paid to those kids. As the American Psychological Association just explained, the evidence simply does not support the narrative that social media is inherently or uniquely problematic. Instead, they recommend better media literacy and digital citizenship efforts in schools, to help those who do run into trouble how to avoid getting sucked in.
But Vasan buys into the narrative, and evidence be damned.
I mean, sure he has statistics, but they don’t say what he wants them to say:
Inaction has helped lead us into a youth mental health crisis. In 2021, 38 percent of NYC high schoolers reported feeling so sad or hopeless during the past 12 months that they stopped doing their usual activities — a rate that was significantly higher for Latino/a and Black students than their white peers.
A survey in 2021, you say? Gee… I wonder why might have happened in the preceding 12 months that might have had an impact on their mental health. What might have caused kids to feel sad and hopeless leading them to stop doing their usual activities? Vasan writes this and assumes you’ll all agree with him that it must be social media, when, for fuck’s sake, it was the damn pandemic. In the preceding 12 months, kids watched a global pandemic take over the world, taking them out of schools, getting people sick, killing loved ones, leading many to have parents who may have lost jobs, while mostly keeping them locked up in their homes to avoid contracting a deadly viral infection.
Indeed, social media was kind of a savior for many of those kids, in that it allowed them to actually continue to have something resembling a social life during the lockdown periods of the pandemic when NYC’s schools were shut down or totally remote.
But, no, to Vasan, it’s obvious that the problem was social media all along:
We must lay out strategies for how we’ll protect young people from the harms of social media. We must rework regulations and, where appropriate, hold companies accountable for the damage they continue to inflict.
Again, Pew and the American Psychological Association both released reports in the last year detailing how social media was actually more helpful to most kids, and noted that there was just a very small percentage who seemed to find social media problematic.
And, yes, sure, let’s work towards fixing those situations and helping those students. But to insist, flat out, that social media is harmful to kids, and that companies need to be “held accountable” because some kids use the internet for problematic purposes, is ridiculous.
And then Vasan closes out with the most ridiculous bit of them all, claiming that social media is no different than lead paint. Really.
Social media may be digital, but its effects can be just as damaging as tobacco, lead paint, or air pollution. One of the primary roles of public health has been to reduce exposure to these toxins through education and harm reduction, and sometimes through litigation, regulation and enforcement, thereby preventing disease, staving off suffering, and mitigating societal costs.
There is no reason to treat social media any differently.
No. Social media’s effects literally cannot be “just as damaging” as tobacco, lead paint, or air pollution. All three of those lead to actual poisons breaking down your body.
Words do not do that.
Again, throughout this I’ve been clear that some kids cannot handle social media, and we should look to help them, but anyone who insists that social media is the equivalent of lead paint does not know what the fuck they’re talking about, and should not be anywhere near a health department, let alone running one for the largest city in the US.
If you want to deal with the downsides of social media, you need rational people in charge. Not foolish people driven by evidence-free moral panics. Unfortunately, New York City has the latter.
Filed Under: aswin vasan, kids and social media, lead paint, moral panic, nyc, protect the children, social media, toxins