There is a firm consensus in American culture today that smoking cigarettes around kids is bad.
But in the not-so-distant past, it was commonplace to smoke around kids all the time, in public and private places. This behavior would elicit shock and horror today. The rapid change in consensus makes me think (and hope) that even though history is a fickle judge, Americans in 2073 will similarly look back at some of our accepted behaviors as shockingly dangerous and irresponsible—for instance, the unregulated use of social media by minors.
I recently sat in on a presentation for high schoolers about the harms of vaping. The officer giving the presentation warned the teenagers that they were influencing their younger peers. She mentioned that she had once given the presentation to a group of ten-year-olds, who had gotten interested in vaping after seeing on Instagram that their older siblings were doing it. I found it notable that while this officer found the vaping concerning, she did not find it problematic that ten-year-olds were on Instagram at all.
The U.S. Surgeon General issued a major warning earlier this year about an “epidemic of loneliness” and has now issued a warning about young people and social media. Suicide and depression rates among young people are skyrocketing. Yesteryear’s warnings for young Americans were primarily about physical health—like smoking and obesity, issues more obviously within the purview of the Surgeon General. That the major health crisis for American kids today is also a disease of the soul is notable and terrifying. At the same time, the Surgeon General's warning is a hopeful sign for those who have long been saying that maybe we shouldn't allow our children to do their primary communicating on addictive and mind-shaping media (including a platform designed to send self-deleting erotic images) or that the endless loops of scrolling and comparing are wreaking untold havoc on our kids' mental health.
To quote Billie Eilish's “Bad Guy,” the proper response to these well-intentioned and meaningful documents from the Surgeon General is “Duh.” In fact, Eilish herself recently revealed that she has deleted all social media. The twenty-one-year-old singer's 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 is robbing children of childhood and the effects are lifelong. And of course, it is not just kids that are being harmed—social media is reducing many adults to adolescence. Considering that these all-consuming forms of communication have only existed for about a decade and a half, we have been running a massive experiment on everyone.
Rightly we look back with horror on children in sweatshops and baby lungs filled with noxious smoke. Our blind spot is not prudishness or fear of technology. Even though social media is a tool, it is a tool that has serious effects. Like guns, tobacco, and alcohol, use of social media needs to be treated with exceeding caution and care due to its immense power—indeed, power over life and death.
Fr. Dominic Bouck is a priest of the Diocese of Bismarck.
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