The Surgeon General’s Fear-Mongering, Unconstitutional Effort to Label Social Media

By Aaron Mackey and Jason Kelley

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s extraordinarily misguided and speech-chilling call this week to label social media platforms as harmful to adolescents is shameful fear-mongering that lacks scientific evidence and turns the nation’s top physician into a censor. This claim is particularly alarming given the far more complex and nuanced picture that studies have drawn about how social media and young people’s mental health interact.

The Surgeon General’s suggestion that speech be labeled as dangerous is extraordinary. Communications platforms are not comparable to unsafe food, unsafe cars, or cigarettes, all of which are physical products—rather than communications platforms—that can cause physical injury. Government warnings on speech implicate our fundamental rights to speak, to receive information, and to think. Murthy’s effort will harm teens, not help them, and the announcement puts the surgeon general in the same category as censorial public officials like Anthony Comstock.

There is no scientific consensus that social media is harmful to children’s mental health. Social science shows that social media can help children overcome feelings of isolation and anxiety. This is particularly true for LBGTQ+ teens. EFF recently conducted a survey in which young people told us that online platforms are the safest spaces for them, where they can say the things they can’t in real life ‘for fear of torment.’ They say these spaces have improved their mental health and given them a ‘haven’ to talk openly and safely. This comports with Pew Research findings that teens are more likely to report positive than negative experiences in their social media use.

Additionally, Murthy’s effort to label social media creates significant First Amendment problems in its own right, as any government labeling effort would be compelled speech and courts are likely to strike it down.

Young people’s use of social media has been under attack for several years. Several states have recently introduced and enacted unconstitutional laws that would require age verification on social media platforms, effectively banning some young people from them. Congress is also debating several federal censorship bills, including the Kids Online Safety Act and the Kids Off Social Media Act, that would seriously impact young people’s ability to use social media platforms without censorship. Last year, Montana banned the video-sharing app TikTok, citing both its Chinese ownership and its interest in protecting minors from harmful content. That ban was struck down as unconstitutionally overbroad; despite that, Congress passed a similar federal law forcing TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, to divest the company or face a national ban.

Like Murthy, lawmakers pushing these regulations cherry-pick the research, nebulously citing social media’s impact on young people, and dismissing both positive aspects of platforms and the dangerous impact these laws have on all users of social media, adults and minors alike.

We agree that social media is not perfect, and can have negative impacts on some users, regardless of age. But if Congress is serious about protecting children online, it should enact policies that promote choice in the marketplace and digital literacy. Most importantly, we need comprehensive privacy laws that protect all internet users from predatory data gathering and sales that target us for advertising and abuse.

Source: EFF

Aaron litigates free speech, anonymity, privacy, government surveillance and transparency cases. Before joining EFF in 2015, Aaron was in Washington, D.C. where he worked on speech, privacy, and freedom of information issues at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown Law. Aaron graduated from Berkeley Law, where he worked for EFF while a student in the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic. He also holds an LLM from Georgetown Law. Prior to law school, Aaron was a journalist at the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, Arizona. He received his undergraduate degree in journalism and English from the University of Arizona, where he met his amazing wife, Ashley. They have two children.

In addition to focusing on student privacy, surveillance, and free speech issues, Jason ensures that EFF’s campaigns are seen by as many people as possible. Before joining EFF, Jason managed marketing strategy and content for a software company that helps non-programmers learn to code, and advertising and marketing analytics for a student loan startup. Jason received his BA in English and Philosophy from Kent State University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from The University of the South. He tries daily to apply advice from his professor Sam Pickering, the inspiration for Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society: “Take out the extra words. Make it go quicker.”

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