Lewis: This generation’s tobacco | VailDaily.com

Lewis: This generation’s tobacco

There was a time in our recent history between 1940-1960 when, while most knew instinctively that smoking cigarettes was bad, the medical community lacked definitive data to prove, scientifically, that cigarettes caused respiratory illnesses. As would be expected, the tobacco companies did everything possible to both delay any studies and diminish the veracity of their results.

I submit that social media is this generation’s tobacco and now, we’re in a period that is equivalent to cigarettes in the mid-1900s — trying to prove a correlation and causation. What we know is that teen suicide has skyrocketed over 29% in the past decade and is now the second-leading cause of teen death (next to accidents). We also know that, as time spent online increases, teen happiness plummets.

Yes, other factors could be at play here. Teens themselves believe that social media strengthens their friendships and support networks. Other teens argue that their increase in unhappiness is more related to global issues like war and climate change. I had to laugh. Climate change? This is like asking a two-pack-a-day smoker if they think cigarettes cause cancer. For those of us who have raised kids, which do you think a typical teen is more concerned about: climate change or who has a crush on whom? To the parents of Greta Thunberg, you are the exception to that rule.

One of the most interesting data points is that, while 32% of teens think social media has a negative effect on their peers, only 9% said they are personally negatively impacted. It’s human nature to see problems in others but not ourselves.

I have a Facebook account that I post to maybe twice a year. The constant stream of artificial reality isn’t something I find appealing. I can see how hard it would be for kids to see this continual stream of falsified perfection (perfect faces, perfect bodies, perfect lives, perfect bank accounts) and feel insecure by comparison.

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Utah has just taken the first significant step toward reducing social media’s impact on children by enacting legislation requiring parental permission and limiting the time that kids can spend online. Other states are likely to follow. While this may be seen as extreme, I think they are attempting to solve a very real problem.

Some critics raise concerns over a child’s right to privacy, but parents are responsible for their children and effective parenting requires a reasonable level of visibility and control. Lacking this oversight leaves children vulnerable to bullying and other predatory behavior. 

Social media is neither all good or all bad. There are benefits and risks, so protecting our children means reducing the risks while maximizing the benefits. But, just as with cigarettes in 1950, there is an absence of definitive data on social media’s impacts on children.

Most current studies try to simply correlate the amount of time spent on social media with negative impacts, but time may not be the only key factor. The negative effects could be more correlated to children with increased insecurities or those who do not have an inherent strong sense of personal well-being. Just as cigarettes cause health issues in some while not in others, social media likely affects teens in different ways. Some will not have any negative effects while others can face depression, suicidal thoughts, or worse. What is clear is that depressed teens spend more time online. 

The hard part about enacting legislation today is that we don’t know exactly what would help the most. While I think most perceive a link between social media and teen depression, I was unable to find any conclusive studies. My hope is that researchers start more detailed research regarding the potential mental health risks posed by social media so this and future generations can live happier and healthier lives.

Mark Lewis, a Colorado native, had a long career in technology, including serving as the CEO of several tech companies. He retired from technology and is now writing thriller novels. Mark and his wife, Lisa, and their two Australian Shepherds — Kismet and Cowboy, reside in Edwards.

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