How NYC Teens Reacted to Surgeon General’s Social Media Warning

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In Manhattan, one high school freshman said he is trying to cut down on scrolling through TikTok, but questioned whether age restrictions on social media use could ever effectively stop tech-savvy teenagers.

Another senior from Queens said social media is essential for socializing but lamented its transformation from an enjoyable activity into an obligation.

And outside a Brooklyn high school, one sophomore said he disdains the addictive power of social media and how it “manipulates our reward centers.” Still, he did not believe that legal restrictions were appropriate.

The teenagers’ reactions came hours after the United States surgeon general’s warning on Tuesday that social media can be a “profound risk” to the mental health and well-being of young people.

The warning added fresh fuel to a pitched national conversation on the effects of social media use on children and teenagers — and how policymakers, tech companies and families should intervene to limit it. The Biden administration said Tuesday it would create a task force to study the consequences and offer recommendations.

But in the nation’s largest school system, interviews with more than a dozen teenagers revealed a nuanced outlook on social media and the complex ways they are grappling with its ubiquitous presence. (Some of the students’ last names are being withheld because of their ages.)

“I resent it a lot actually,” said Jack Brown, 15, a sophomore at Brooklyn Technical High School in Fort Greene. “I could rant all day about why I don’t like social media and why I think it’s one of the great cancers of our generation.”

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Still, he added: “I just don’t think the government should have that type of regulation over our own social lives.”

The surgeon general’s report came at a time of intense public pressure on social media companies to rein in the way that adolescents — and in particular younger children — use platforms. Nearly 40 percent of children ages 8 to 12 use social media, some research shows, even though most platforms require older minimum ages.

In recent years, a growing number of states have entered the fray, passing laws to require a parent’s consent for social media use. In Washington and California, some school districts have even sued top platforms, arguing their content harms young people. And as teachers contend with a youth mental health crisis exacerbated by the pandemic, some experts have questioned whether social media is adding to the challenges.

But on Tuesday, many teenagers said that social media would be nearly impossible to disentangle from their lives.

“Social media is just something that you have to have in our generation,” said Adelina Zaripova, 15, a sophomore from Staten Island who attends Brooklyn Tech.

She added that she finds the intense political focus on young people’s use of social media to be “kind of funny.”

“Like, I know my grandma spends her days sitting on her phone watching funny cat videos on TikTok,” Adelina said.

Many also wondered whether adults grasp the potential benefits.

One high school freshman in Bushwick, Brooklyn, said his passion for cars developed through scrolling on Instagram, for instance. Another junior said social media helped teach her how to apply for college.

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And two middle-school girls said that TikTok helped open their eyes to the lives of others and improve their Spanish skills. Still, they acknowledged that their experiences were not always positive.

Daurelis, a student at Philippa Schuyler Middle School, said she is often followed online by “creeps” after she posts makeup tutorials on TikTok. And recently, her self-esteem was damaged after a struggle with cyberbullying, she said.

“I was being called names,” said Daurelis, who is 13. “They were saying a lot of hurtful things.”

“There’s always discrimination and racism on social media,” her classmate, Charlize, 13, chimed in.

The surgeon general on Tuesday implored policymakers and tech companies to “urgently take action” to safeguard against those online risks. Some teenagers said the message echoed what they had already been calling for.

In her school newspaper, for example, Sadathi Hettiarachchige, 15, recently wrote an opinion column arguing for a more restrictive age limit on Instagram. Sadathi, a freshman at Brooklyn Tech, said she and her friends have recently found themselves “staring in the mirror” — and scrutinizing their appearance.

“And I realize it,” she said. “And I’m like, ‘Stop!’”

As some states like Utah and Arkansas toughen restrictions on social media, some experts — and teenagers — question whether the new laws will have their intended effects.

“We’re kind of in a pickle here,” said Bradford Suthammanont, 15, a freshman at a high school in downtown Manhattan, who added that tech companies have “zero incentive” to make meaningful changes.

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