Social media is so toxic to kids that it has its own surgeon general’s warning?

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Hindsight is not actually 20/20, although it is a perspective that has a different vantage than the present moment. Sometimes its power is exaggerated, such as the notion that we can judge things based on mercurial concepts such as being on the “right side of history.” Of course, history is no impartial judge, nor are we omniscient recipients of that knowledge. In an age that is “beyond good and evil,” what standards can even be used is quite murky and debatable.

Nevertheless, general American culture seems to have gravitated around the fact that we can join arms and condemn something: Smoking cigarettes around kids is bad. Now, one might hope for bedrock cultural consensus around things like life, death, murder, suicide, sexual acts, biological sex, marriage, divorce, God, etc., but at least we have something.

Smoking and vaping

It dawned on me recently that just as we look back into a not-so-distant past where it was commonplace to smoke around kids all the time in public and private places, but now it elicits shock and horror, so, too, I think (and hope) that the unregulated use of social media by minors will cause a cultural “lookback” in 2073 to this time as shockingly dangerous and irresponsible.

One time I was sitting in on a presentation to high-schoolers about the harms of vaping. The officer giving the presentation was warning about the impact that these older kids were having on their younger peers. She mentioned that she had given the presentation to fifth graders, and they saw on their Instagram that their siblings were vaping. I couldn’t believe it: The vaping was being presented as more harmful than a 10-year-old being on Instagram!

The loneliness epidemic

After releasing a major warning about an “epidemic of loneliness,” the U.S. surgeon general has now issued a major warning about young people and social media. Suicide and depression rates among young people are skyrocketing. Yesteryear’s warnings primarily cautioned about young Americans’ physical health — more ostensibly the purview of the surgeon general. Smoking and obesity? OK, that makes sense.

That the major health crisis for American kids has morphed into disease of the soul is notable and terrifying. At the same time, it is a reprieve for those who have been warning about when a village raises a child because of no-fault divorce, when kids are told their lives are all about them, and the value of life is to work hard and believe in yourself, and you can do anything you set your mind to, and you can be important based on professional Instagram and TikTok models if you just look a certain way and talk a certain way, and the primary way of communicating is on a platform designed to send self-deleting erotic images. All in an endless loop of cycling and scrolling.

Deleting social media?

To quote Billie Eilish in her song “Bad Guy,” the proper response to these well-intentioned and meaningful documents from the surgeon general is: “duh.” In fact, the very same 21-year-old artist recently revealed that she has deleted all social media. Her firsthand testimony is striking. “I deleted it all off my phone, which is such a huge deal for me. Cause, dude, you didn’t have the internet to grow up with. For me, it was such a big part of — not my childhood, I wasn’t like an iPad baby, thank God; but honestly, I feel like I grew up in the perfect time of the internet that it wasn’t so internet-y that I didn’t have a childhood. I really had such a childhood, and I was doing stuff all the time.”

Social media has robbed children of childhood, and the effects are lifelong. It is not just kids — many adults are reduced to adolescence by social media as well — but considering this all-consuming media communication has only existed for about a decade and a half, we have been experimenting on all of us. Rightly, we look with horror on children in sweatshops and baby lungs filled with noxious smoke. Our blindspot is not prudishness or fear of technology. Like a gun, this particular tool needs to be treated with exceeding caution and care due to its immense power — indeed, a power of life and death.

Father Dominic Bouck

Father Dominic Bouck is the director of university ministry and an assistant professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota.