Main health authority suggests warning labels, similar to those for cigarettes, to minimize mental health problems

Political despair produces monstrosities. On Monday (June 17, 2024), the main health authority in the United States wrote a article no New York Times in which it proposes that social networks adopt warning stamps, similar to those printed on cigarette packs, to reduce mental health problems among children and adolescents.

The defense was made by doctor Vivek Murthy, who holds the position of surgeon general in the government of Democrat Joe Biden. The position has no equivalent in Brazil. Here, the Minister of Health has a national network of hospitals and institutes to show what he came for; There, where public health tends to zero, the surgeon general has the power to suggest policies, which is almost nothing. Hence your choice to make proposals through a newspaper article.

The United States changed the history of cigarettes by adopting in 1966 a warning stamp policy on packs, a practice that was copied by more than a hundred countries, including Brazil. The seal on the pack proved to be an effective policy for spreading scientific knowledge about the evils of tobacco in the product that causes the diseases. The surgeon general’s interpretation is more or less obvious: social networks are as addictive as cigarettes. It will be?

There are points in common between the tobacco industry and big techs. They sell themselves as industries that depend on free will, they are habitual in discrediting science whenever they are questioned by research and they spend billions on lobbying so that their business is not regulated. The list can be expanded at will by the reader, but one thing is certain: while cigarettes are a chemical addiction, social networks depend on the manipulation of algorithms. These are different issues and, obviously, require different treatments.

It’s not the only problem with the recommendation. There are studies that indicate that alert badges on social networks have little or no effectiveness. The most efficient alerts depend on the credibility of whoever is behind the message. If you are a highly respected scientist, the public’s credibility increases, according to search by Cameron Martel, researcher at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and David Rand, professor of cognitive sciences at the same institute.

The research deals mainly with warnings about fake news and it would be foolhardy to extend its results to the mental health problems of children and adolescents. More specific research, which deals with adolescents’ body image, throws cold water on the proposal for an alert seal on a social network.

This is because the effect of the seal may be the opposite of that intended when directed at teenagers, according to psychologist professor Rachel Rodgers, from Northeastern University. She researches the effect of manipulated photos of bodies on mental health. According to Rodgers, the seals are ineffective in preventing the effect these images have on teenagers at best. “At worst, they can exacerbate these effects”stated to the university digital newspaper.

In other words, the effects can be even worse because teenagers love to see what is forbidden. The seal would act as a decoy.

Only political desperation explains why the highest health authority in the United States presents a proposal that has nothing scientific about it. Democrats usually stick this label on Donald Trump (and there’s a lot of truth to it), but this time the anti-science trophy goes to the surgeon general. President Biden and the Democrats are defenders of social media regulation, but have failed to approve any proposal in this regard, 5 months before the election. Trump appears ahead in most polls.

The US Congress lives on lobbies, and big techs appear as spending champions in this area precisely to prevent congressmen from approving any rule. In the European Union, for example, the law says that social networks should only be used by people over 16; under this age, only with parental permission.

It is obvious that this norm is disrespected, but the mental health problem of teenagers in Europe is lower than in the USA. Just over half of teenagers in the US spend 4.8 hours a day on social media, according to Gallup poll October 2023.

There is no research using the same method in Europe. But one similar survey, also from 2023, showed that in Portugal it leads the screen time of teenagers on social networks, with 2.2 hours. European regulations prohibit big techs of using their algorithms to look at teenagers.

This guideline was created after research showed that teenagers who spend 5 hours a day on social media are twice as likely to develop depression.

European regulation is not a panacea, as is believed among part of the left in Brazil, but it works as a containment for the free-for-all that prevails in the USA.


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