Social Media Does Not Cause Cancer

June 24, 2024

Of course it doesn’t: smoking causes cancer.  

Cigarettes are harmful in a way that is easy to measure and to demonstrate. There are decades of settled academic research to back this claim up. It is right and proper that the US Surgeon General (with Congress' approval) placed a government health warning on every pack of Marlboro (and all the others) to warn the public away from this harmful product. In this case, a physical warning on a box of cigarettes has saved lives. 

Social media, on the other hand, is not a physical, but a digital product. It is present in an online form, on phones, tablets, laptops, computers and even gaming consoles. Facebook, Instagram and all the others, are not ingested, inhaled or in any way subsumed into the body. It can be passively “consumed” as well as actively interacted with. And it is clear that there are risks, potential harms as well as real benefits for teens and young people to be on social media. 

In other words, it’s complicated. The research is not settled. Cigarettes have no redeeming qualities. Period. However, being on social media can have positive, negative or no effect at all at any given time and with any given teen. Placing a blanket warning on all social media platforms is as broad a stroke as claiming that an entire generation is “anxious”. The warning label could actually have the opposite effect to that which it is trying to alleviate. 

Let’s also consider the practicalities. It is one thing to place a sticker on a box and place it on a shelf in a physical store. It is quite another to do this online. I have some history on doing just this. I founded the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA) in 1999 in order to provide web owners the ability to generate a label on their site that parents could use to block access to content they didn’t want their kids to see.  

We quickly ran into the problem of what to do with larger and more interactive sites, like MySpace, that foreshadowed the arrival of Web 2.0 and the many social media sites that followed. Does the label appear just on the home page? What about the billions of pages, profiles, uploads, tweets and snaps produced every day? Will we see the Surgeon General’s health warning right after we are shown the cookies policy that we have to agree to?

It’s remarkable that the reaction to this proposed warning label from politicians such as Senators Blackburn and Blumenthal has been tepid at best. They feel that their proposed Kids Online Safety Act would require social media sites to provide sufficient warnings to kids and their parents as and when needed. Unsurprisingly, organizations such as the libertarian think tank, NetChoice opposes the idea. But when Jeff Chester of Center for Digital Democracy calls the idea an “illusory safeguard without serious reform” you know more thought needs to be given to this simple fix. 

One might be forgiven for thinking that this proposed warning label is nothing more than an election year gambit; a way to match the Haidt zeitgeist with a simple solution that swing voters can get on board with. I sincerely hope this is not the case and I hope that the Surgeon General can return to his much more balanced and nuanced statement on social media that he released last year.  

We need a serious and holistic approach to what is a complex and confounding set of issues. We must also seek the counsel of those we are purportedly trying to protect - our teens and young people. They have insights and practical advice that we parents, as well as the platforms and politicians should heed before we feed another moral panic not unlike those that faced the early versions of radio, television, computer games and even the bicycle.  

I hope that the Surgeon General adds his voice to the bipartisan call for a federal privacy bill upon which online safety bills can be built. And to ask Congress to keep funding the ongoing research projects looking into the actual impacts that social and digital media has on kids and teens.  

Let’s have more than a digital bandaid that might have unintended consequences for the very people we are trying to help. And let’s acknowledge that for all the many and concerning problems, social media is not equivalent to smoking.  It’s more complicated than that. 

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Written by

Stephen Balkam

For the past 30 years, Stephen Balkam has had a wide range of leadership roles in the nonprofit sector in the both the US and UK. He is currently the Founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), an international, nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, DC. FOSI’s mission is to make the online world safer for kids and their families.