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Surgeon General's call for labels on social media is 'fearmongering,' say opponents

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The U.S. surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, is calling on Congress to require a warning on social media. He says kids spending hours on social media has become a major factor in the country's mental health crisis - that it is leading to depression and anxiety. When I spoke with the surgeon general this week, he told me about children and teens who feel worse about themselves when they use social media. He said they're crying out for help.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

VIVEK MURTHY: We've got to respond. You know, as a country, we have allowed this to go on for nearly 20 years - the unfettered spread of social media with very little check, with very little accountability.

KELLY: Well, our next guest believes that such warning labels would hurt, not help. Aaron Mackey is the free speech and transparency litigation director with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. That's a nonprofit that advocates for civil liberties in the digital world. Aaron Mackey, welcome.

AARON MACKEY: Thank you for having me, Mary Louise.

KELLY: OK, make your case. Why, in your view, is a surgeon general warning label a terrible idea?

MACKEY: Well, first and foremost, the state of science and our understanding of social media's impact on children is far more nuanced and complex than what the surgeon general paints. And, unfortunately, what's happening here is the surgeon general is leaning into sort of fearmongering and concern without a scientific basis to label speech platforms that we all use to share, express ourselves, and that teens all use and likening them to dangerous products like cigarettes or vehicles.

And so that's going to cause a host of problems for children in particular, particularly when children overwhelmingly say that they use social media to benefit themselves, to connect with their friends and family, to share their art and creativity and to learn and to be a part of our society.

KELLY: I want to put to you another point that Vivek Murthy made in my interview with him, which is that these platforms - social media platforms - may affect minors differently than adults. Here's how he put it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MURTHY: Imagine pitting a young person - an adolescent, a teenager - against the best product engineers in the world who are using the most cutting-edge brain science to figure out how to maximize the time you spend on the platform. That is the definition of an unfair fight, and it's what our kids are up against today.

KELLY: Aaron Mackey, there is scientific data showing that teenage brains have not fully developed yet. Whether it's warning labels or something else, are you open to any kind of safeguard when it comes to kids and social media?

MACKEY: Yeah, I think so. The part that EFF does agree with the surgeon general is that more can be done here. That includes passing a comprehensive consumer data privacy law that protects everyone - both minors and adults - from having all of our data taken, used by these social media companies and then results in sort of these downstream harms where we're targeted with behavioral ads and sort of other things in our feed.

And we can also make sure that there's room, legally, for third parties to come in and actually be used by teens, by their parents and even adults to help them better control their feeds online, how much time they spend online.

KELLY: So without wanting to oversimplify, if I'm hearing you right, your central objection here to a warning label boils down to free speech and whether it would be chilled.

MACKEY: It's both that there is a significant First Amendment problem, but it's also just a practical problem that this is actually going to be harmful. This is going to be - result in driving teens and children away from these platforms, many of whom need these platforms because they lack communities at home or in their own local areas - physical communities where they can find people who look like them, who think like them. And those online communities are often where they find their refuge. It's actually where they go for help with mental health, with physical help - all those sorts of things.

KELLY: That's Aaron Mackey with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Thank you very much.

MACKEY: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.