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J.D. Long GarcíaJune 21, 2024
U.S. teens spend an average of 4.8 hours a day on social media, according to a Gallup poll. Photo shows teenagers seated in a row, all looking at their phones. (iStock/monkeybusinessimages)U.S. teens spend an average of 4.8 hours a day on social media, according to a Gallup poll. (iStock/monkeybusinessimages)

On school days, I make a point of checking in on my eldest son at least once while he is doing homework. In part, I check in to see if I can help. But I am also checking to see if he’s gotten distracted.

My son, like most of his peers, has his own smartphone. And in the last couple of months, he got onto social media. Naturally, the U.S. surgeon general’s call this week to add a warning sign to social media caught our attention.

“It is time to require a surgeon general’s warning label on social media platforms, stating that social media is associated with significant mental health harms for adolescents,” U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy wrote in a guest column for The New York Times. “A surgeon general’s warning label, which requires congressional action, would regularly remind parents and adolescents that social media has not been proved safe.”

Dr. Murphy said that social media is an “important contributor” to the ongoing mental health crisis among young people and argued a label could be one part of the solution. Warning labels on tobacco may have helped people quit, he wrote, and one recent survey of Latino parents suggested that a warning sign on social media from the surgeon general could lead parents to monitor or limit their children’s engagement with it.

I did my own “survey” at home, asking my son what he thought of the warning label.

“It’s dumb,” he said. “People will just ignore it.”

Frankly, that was my first thought, too.

“Why would you need a warning label?” he asked.

So I stumbled through some of the reasons that came to mind: People get bullied on social media, people spend too much time on it (he was aghast that U.S. teens spend, on average, 4.8 hours a day on it, according to a Gallup poll), and platforms like Instagram can make people feel worse about their physical appearance.

We’ve talked a lot about social media as a family. I’ve pointed out that what people post in their feeds does not always reflect their real life. That people can get more aggressive online than they do in person because they don’t have to face in-person consequences.

“O.K., but if it’s so bad, then why do they allow it at all?” my son wondered.

Well, I said, it’s not all bad. People can connect to supportive communities to which they may not otherwise have access. You can get news faster through social media—though it’s certainly not always accurate!

My son still wasn’t convinced the warning label would do much, and I’m not either. In fairness, Dr. Murthy did not say the warning label alone would make social media safe. He has shared other recommendations for government leaders, social media platforms and consumers. Social media companies must be more transparent about their data, for example, and schools should consider becoming phone-free zones. Dr. Murthy has also made suggestions for parents, like restricting children’s phone use during social gatherings and before bed.

But at times, he seems to talk about parents and our children as social media’s unwitting victims, who need to be saved by our government. That’s certainly not how I feel about it.

I’m a parent, not a mental health expert. Until they move out, the role I play in my children’s lives is primary. My wife and I are responsible for their well-being—mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. God entrusted us with the care of these precious creatures, and we’re the ones who should be held accountable.

With that in mind, I have a few ideas.

Be self-aware. Self-awareness is good medicine for a lot of different ailments, but both parents and children should be especially aware of who we are on social media.

How does it push our buttons? What emotions do we feel when we see certain posts? Are we constantly checking in at every opportunity, or can we limit our use of social media? I find sharing my own tendencies on social media—good and bad—is helpful for these conversations. (For example, as my wife kindly reminds me, my humor is more of an acquired taste, and perhaps social media is not the best place for it.)

Make time to talk. And listen. This is obvious, but we need to talk to our kids—and not just about social media. I always want to hear about our son’s day at school and especially about his friends, who are so important to him. I even want to hear about his favorite video games, though I haven’t played any myself in years. I want to know his opinions about things—not to change them but to know more about him. The more I know, the more I can love.

Our home should be a safe space where our children can share how they feel and what they think. I don’t know if we’re always successful at that, but that’s our goal. Our younger children don’t have their own phones yet. But hopefully, by the time they do, we will have built a relationship on strong face-to-face communication.

Talk about social media specifically—and not just once. If social media is an ongoing part of our lives, it’s a good thing to talk about routinely. That doesn’t mean just monitoring how long we’ve been on it (though that’s certainly important). I’ve talked with my family about negative feedback I’ve received on social media, but it’s just as important to share positive comments and fun things. (Whale videos always do it for me.)

Talking about social media as a family should also include understanding how it works. The Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” is a good starting point. I’m also partial to the thoughts of Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and philosopher (see his TED Talk “How We Need to Remake the Internet” or his interview on “How Social Media Ruins Your Life”). The point is that we need to be aware of how social media works from the inside, so to speak, and that can help us use it more responsibly.

I love being a parent. It is the source of so much joy in my life. At the same time, I recognize that age can often be an insurmountable barrier to communication. (I was born before the iPhone and my son was born after.) As much as they tried, my parents didn’t “get me” when I was a teenager. I cannot pretend to know what it’s like to be a teenager today.

But I can reassure my children of my love for them every day. I can make it clear that, no matter what they look like, they are unconditionally loved. I can choose to listen to them, every day, to learn more about who they are. And no matter what, I can tell them that they are cherished by their parents and by God.

Maybe warning labels on social media would spark conversations that deepen relationships between parents and children. But building loving family relationships can’t wait for that.

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