More efforts are underway to limit social media. How do you separate good from bad?

Alarm bells have been going off for some time about the harmful effects of social media on young people, everything from cyber bullying to body shaming to online predators and more.

This year, at both the national and state levels, educators and lawmakers have been trying to convert their concerns into action.

In California, a bill passed the Senate to bar online platforms from sending addictive social media feeds to a minor without the consent of the youth’s parent or guardian. The bill would also prohibit sending notifications to minors overnight or during the school day without permission.

In Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest school district is developing a policy to prohibit using cellphones and social media platforms during the school day beginning this fall. Gov. Gavin Newsom has said he supports such efforts.

In Minnesota, members of both parties supported a bill mandating that schools adopt rules regarding students’ possession and use of cell phones. School leaders must have policies in place by next March.

In addition there have been smaller scale efforts to curb some of the worst impacts of cell phone use in Wisconsin, but these vary from school to school.

And then on the 17th of June, the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy called for a health warning label on social media sites, like the ones found on tobacco products. In an op-ed for the New York Times, he expressed hope that a warning label would remind parents and kids about the mental health risks of social media.

Is any of this going to work? Could it have unintended consequences? And is it overkill at a time when cell phones are often used in the classroom.

Some experts are skeptical about the effectiveness of such broad approaches.

Heather Kirkorian is a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who studies how kids and parents interact with digital media. Warning labels are good for raising awareness, she said, but “my sense is that most teens and parents have heard about the potential risks and are aware that that might be a concern.” Treating social media “as analogous to cigarettes is unhelpful, because there are potential benefits of using social media as well, and I don’t think we can make that same argument for smoking cigarettes.”

According to Kirkorian, a more useful approach is using research to inform best practices around social media use. That means understanding “what kinds of activities on social media might be the riskiest, and which kids might be most at risk for those harms versus those that would benefit,” Kirkorian said.

There are some clearly harmful communities, ones that promote anorexia and body shaming content, which can have a harmful impact on youth.

Many offline social dynamics also play out in the online world, Kirkorian explained, so kids “who get bullied offline are most at risk of getting bullied online.”

A survey anonymously filled out by Wisconsin high school students shows that certain identity groups are particularly at risk. In the Wisconsin Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted by the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) in 2021, high school students who identified as female were twice as likely to say they experienced online bullying as males, and LGBTQ+ students were twice as likely as all other students.

Indigenous youth have the highest rates of mental illness among their peers. Earlier this year, the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin and the Spirit Lake Tribe of North Dakota filed a lawsuit against social media companies seeking damages for harm caused by social media companies on youth mental health. Tim Purdon, of the law firm Robins Kaplan, who filed the suit has worked on litigation against opioid manufacturers and distributors, and says he sees many parallels. He sees the surgeon general’s call as “yet another step in the recognition of the seriousness of this problem”

Bad experiences on social media can leave kids felling isolated, depressed, and anxious, Kirkorian explained. They could develop unhealthy eating and sleep habits, and begin to feel shame about their bodies.

But Kirkorian thinks this may be a “chicken-and-egg problem,” because while excessive screen time leads to worse mental health outcomes, some of the research suggests that kids who “feel lonely and sad turn to social media as a coping mechanism.” The Wisconsin risk behavior survey found that students who were “depressed, anxious, or suicidal were more likely to use screens after midnight.”

It can be a place for youths to find their voices

In an ideal world, kids would be able to find a supportive caregiver either at school or at home to help navigate difficult situations.

“We know just how important it is for LGBTQ+ youth to have a supportive adult so that they can reduce their chances of thinking about suicide,” said Molly Herrmann, an education consultant at the Department of Public Instruction. Herrmann responds to a lot of the support questions at the DPI, many from LGBTQ+ students. She said there are pros and cons to social media, because some young people might not have that kind of support in their real life and might need to find that online.

Besides, Kirkorian pointed out, social media has become an important avenue for young people to find their voices.

Kirkorian, who has experience raising a teenager, said it may be hard for parents and caregivers who did not grow up with social media to appreciate just how real online interactions can feel to young people. Nonetheless, she thinks it is important to have judgement-free conversations about who they’re talking to online, what they’re talking about and how it makes them feel.

She also recommends common sense strategies like limiting screen time, especially overnight.

Purdon admits that social media has had positive impacts, but thinks the problem is beyond the individual level. According to him, the business practices of social media companies are designed to keep teenagers glued to their screens.

“As a result, the positive aspect of the product is becomes dwarfed by the negative impact of the product,” he said.

If the tribes win, he hopes any money would be used on health and support services to “abate the damage that has been done.”

How much do Americans use social media?

For context, YouTube is the most widely used online platform, according to the Pew Research Center. More than four out of five U.S. adults report ever using the video-based platform. Facebook also remains a dominant player, with about two-thirds of Americans using it, according to the Pew data. About half say they use Instagram.

About one-quarter to one-third use Pinterest, TikTok, LinkedIn, WhatsApp or Snapchat. About one-fifth use Twitter (now X) or Reddit.

As a measure of sheer impact, about three-quarters of adults under age 30 reported using at least five of the platforms, Pew found. That massive usage comes even though earlier studies by Pew showed that a majority of Americans acknowledged they thought social media had a negative effect on the country.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: There’s a groundswell of action to limit social media. Can it work?

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