A warning on social media is the least we are able to do

You are within the midst of a public health emergency related to a dangerous addictive substance – say a fentanyl epidemic or a teen e-cigarette epidemic. Which of the next is the most effective plan of action?

1. Issue a warning. Tell everyone, “Hey, watch out – this stuff is not good for you.”

2. Regulate the hazardous substance in order that it causes the least possible harm.

3. Ban the substance and punish anyone who distributes it.

Amid a well-documented mental health crisis amongst children and teenagers, to which social media use is clearly contributing, U.S. Health Secretary Vivek Murthy recommends the primary option. In an op-ed for the New York Times on Monday, he wrote: “It's time to require a health secretary warning label on social media platforms indicating that social media is associated with significant mental health harm among youth.”

That's a superb first step, however it's only a Band-Aid on a festering wound. Telling teenagers something is bad for them may go for some kids, but for others it's practically an invite to abuse. To give more weight to a mere label, we want to ban sales to anyone under 18 and implement the laws for those selling it. We must strictly regulate social media, as Europe has begun to do, and ban it for kids under 16. Murthy is asking on Congress to take similar steps.

Defenders of absolute free speech (or those that play that role when a law restricts something they make lots of money from) will say that requiring age verification systems is an unconstitutional restriction on free speech. Nonsense. We don't allow children to attend PG-13 or R-rated movies without restrictions. We don't allow liquor to be advertised during children's programs.

Complacency is straightforward. The hard truth is that many persons are too hooked on social media themselves to fight for laws that will wean their children off it. The big tech corporations which have Congress of their pockets are only too pleased to see everyone bury their heads within the sand and reap the advantages. But only a mix of options 2 and three will produce real results.

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