If TikTok, SnapChat aren’t harming kids they should prove it

The US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has issued a warning that social media could be harming our kids. His social media advisory is a welcome road map for what everyone — policymakers, tech companies, parents, kids and researchers — should be doing to better understand the impact of platforms like TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat on the developing brains of adolescents.

There are yawning gaps in our knowledge of social media’s effects at this critical point in development. Many of Murthy’s recommendations centered on filling those gaps. And while Murthy also offers advice for parents, educators and even kids themselves, the most urgent recommendations in the report are ones that companies need to take the lead on.


He’d like to see companies adding scientific advisory boards to guide safe product design, reacting swiftly if evidence of harm emerges, and doing more to enforce age minimums. Policymakers, who have been fumbling to put the social media genie back in the bottle via unconstitutional bans, should be pursuing these kinds of realistic recommendations around the design and use of these platforms.

One recommendation that particularly resonated was Murthy’s call for transparency. He wants for technology companies to “share data relevant to the health impact of their platforms with independent researchers and the public in a manner that is timely, sufficiently details, and protects privacy.” Lawmakers should ensure that they do.

As Mitch Prinstein, a psychologist and neuroscientist who studies adolescents’ social interactions at the University of North Carolina, recently pointed out to me, “Companies are assertively hiring psychological scientists from our own programs and labs, but we don’t know what they’re doing and what information they have.”

Given the massive amount of data collected from companies and their intense focus on the influence of their algorithms, it wouldn’t be surprising if they already were experimenting with and studying how social media is being used and is affecting specific groups of kids. Academic researchers like Prinstein would get so much out of any data they are collecting. For example, are they asking what happens when kids see more of certain kinds of posts or see posts in a different order? Are they experimenting with what happens when kids see “likes” more or less often? All of that could tell us a lot about kids’ reactions to social media and overall well-being when using it, Prinstein says.

Critics might see Murthy’s warning as merely stirring up moral panic over new technology — the latest chapter in a long history of panicking over how kids’ brains and behavior will be affected by shifting cultural norms. Consider, for example, earlier warnings about violence on TV or in video games.

More than once when contemplating my concerns over social media and kids, I’ve paused to ask myself if I’m having a Tipper Gore moment. She famously stoked hysteria over the dangers of exposing kids to explicit music or movies (a campaign kicked off after she bought her 11-year-old daughter Prince’s Purple Rain, which this opinion writer will note is one of the best albums ever made and has been played many times for her own 11-year-old daughter).

But unlike a single song or scene in a movie, social media permeates a teen’s day. Nearly every teenager in the US — 95% — is on social media, and the report notes that a third of teenagers report using it “almost constantly.” Meanwhile, some 40% of kids between the ages of 8 and 12 are users. And even the ones that aren’t active participants are surely passive ones — parents like me who have held the line on social media and phones know that even when their child doesn’t have their own TikTok account, they’re certainly seeing it on the playground or after school.

That constant barrage of content might include being exposed to material that some parents might find problematic — like videos that glamorize suicide or eating disorders. And perhaps more profoundly, it is also potentially changing the way they connect with other humans. The surgeon general’s report notes that one of the critical unanswered questions is how interacting online versus in person affects kids’ mental health, and in particular, their feelings of connectedness or isolation.

In the end, the advisory is raising a red flag not about what we know to be dangerous, but about all that we don’t know — and as a society, have a right to know — about social media’s effect on adolescent development. It’s a call for good data. What’s the harm in that?

Without it, parents and legislators will be left wondering why social media companies, if confident their products aren’t harmful, wouldn’t simply share the proof.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.