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Warning labels on social media not enough on their own to protect teens: expert

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A proposal to add warning labels to social media is a step in the right direction, but will likely not be enough on their own to curb the negative effects of social media on teenagers, an expert in clinical psychology says.

Last week, U.S. surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy called on Congress to require warning labels on social media platforms similar to those now mandatory on cigarette boxes, citing the significant mental health harms for adolescents and to remind parents of the potential risks of addiction associated with the platforms.

Social media use is prevalent among young people, with up to 95 per cent of youth ages 13 to 17 saying that they use a social media platform, and more than a third saying that they use social media "almost constantly," according to 2022 data from the Pew Research Center.

"I think it’s a good start. I don't think it’s a standalone solution but I was really happy to see it and happy to see the parallel with tobacco control," said Gary Goldfield, a senior scientist with the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) and an expert in clinical psychology.

Goldfield says it is likely warning labels would not have the same impacts as cigarette labelling and would have to be part of a wider body of research and policies.

"We know adolescence is a period where the brain is still developing, kids are impulsive, there's a feeling of invinsibility and that it's not going to be harmful to them," he told CTV Morning Live on Thursday.

"Everybody is using social media – 96 per cent of youth have cellphones; more than 80 per cent use it more than two hours a day. It's a normative part of the culture – so I think a simple warning is not going to be enough to deter adolescents."

Goldfield says the warning labels could be helpful for parents to promote monitoring their kid's social media use and to bring awareness of its impacts.

"We know awareness is the first step in any behaviour changes," he said.

He says those at the highest risk of suffering from the negative mental health impacts of social media use are girls between 11 and 13-years old and boys between 13 and 15-years old.

HOW TO CURB THE NEGATIVE IMPACTS?

Social media platforms already ban kids under 13 from signing up for their platforms to comply with federal laws. The problem? Goldfield says they are easy to get around.

"Kids create accounts and they lie about their age, there's no verification," he said.

He says one way to reduce social media use in kids is for parents to act as the role models.

"There's a relationship between parent social media and screen use in their child. They can role model reduced use," he says.

Exposing kids to alternatives to screens at a young age can also have positive impacts.

"Anything that they could be passionate about, could be physical activity, could be hobbies, it could be board games. Just to change the screen culture, at least in the family where you have some sort of control," he said.

With files from The Associated Press

 

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