Protect Adolescents From Surgeon Generals, Not Social Media

Mother bears are well known to attack and kill on site any other living creature that comes near their cubs. Protection of the babies is seared in the mother bear’s DNA it seems.

Mother bears and their cubs came to mind while reading a New York Times account of U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s aim to require “a warning label on social media platforms advising parents that using the platforms might damage adolescents’ mental health.” And in a Times opinion piece published the day after his announcement, Murthy argued that “young people should be protected from technology that hasn’t been proved safe.” No, that’s just not serious. See the opening paragraph of this write-up if you have any questions.  

If it were true that social media had a damaging impact on adolescent health, then it would also be true that Dr. Murthy’s call for a “warning label” would bring new meaning to superfluous. And late.

The simple, crucial truth is that free people look out for themselves. And free parents are particularly energetic to the point of violence when it comes to protecting their children. Taking it further, parents will go substantially without and endure copious amounts of pain to protect their children in ways far more tangible than a “warning label.”

To which some will respond that Murthy and others like him are merely providing guidance. Actually, none needed. Here lies the beauty of freedom. When people do as they wish, and as their parents allow without government getting in the way, they inform us all in ways that warning labels never could.

Words are just words, while people acting of their own free will inform us through the visible results of their actions. Which is another way of saying that if in fact social media is damaging to the mental health of adolescents, we the people will know this intimately through its impact (or not) on the adolescents who get to use it a lot, a little, or perhaps none at all.

It’s easily forgotten that “markets” aren’t some tangible object, rather “markets” are just the people. Applied to adolescents and parents, assuming social media is what Murthy claims, then the Surgeon General and those who think as he does can rest assured that the response from parents will have a great deal more teeth than some warning from a nosey central planner.

Which is the point, or should be. If social media had the damaging impact that Murthy and nailbiters like Jonathan Haidt believe, Murthy’s “warning label” would exist as yet more evidence of how governments are always well behind markets when it comes to discovering a problem. Markets, including the prices arrived at in markets, are a look ahead. Conversely, governmental responses to anything are invariably a look backward.

In other words, if Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok were truly damaging to their users, Meta wouldn’t presently be worth over $1 trillion, Snapchat $25 billion, and TikTok wouldn’t claim a private market valuation well into the hundreds of billions. That is so because the alleged damage wrought by all three would signal a bleak future, along with greatly reduced usage of all three in light of the bleak future. Translated, the shares of Meta and Snapchat would be in freefall, and TikTok’s private valuation would similarly be collapsing if Murthy were on to something.

That the markets aren’t putting the giants of social media out to pasture is a signal, or many signals. It indicates parents aren’t as worried as Murthy is, and even better, that they likely see the value of so much adolescent activity online. Figure that parents can police the latter – from time spent on social media along with knowledge of what their children are doing while on social media. Adolescents on social media are also easily reachable to the point that their social media privileges can be suspended by parents if they’re ever not reachable. Get it?

Of course, the bigger story here is freedom. In the aforementioned opinion piece, Murthy asserted that “The moral test of any society is how well it protects its children.” No, protection of the children is built into who we are. In truth, the moral test of any society is freedom to protect our children and ourselves. Surgeon Generals are yet again superfluous in this quest, and arguably much worse than superfluous.

Republished from RealClear Markets


  • John Tamny

    John Tamny is a popular speaker and author in the U.S. and around the world. His speech topics include "Government Barriers to Economic Growth," "Why Washington and Wall Street are Better Off Living Apart," and more.

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