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New York City: Social Media Is a Public Health Threat

Saying social media is causing serious harm to young people, New York City's health commissioner pledged to develop a plan to reshape and regulate the industry as they would any other public health threat.

New York City
(TNS) — Calling social media a "digital toxin" that's causing serious harm to young people, New York City's health commissioner pledged to develop a plan to reshape and ultimately regulate the industry as they would any other public health threat.

"We've got to get our heads and our hands around this," Dr. Ashwin Vasan, commissioner of the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, told the Advance/, pointing to the mental health crisis that's plaguing young people in the city and around the nation. Unregulated social media platforms use sophisticated algorithms to manipulate users, and all users — specifically young people — are often the prey, he said.

"We're being socially engineered and it's time for government to play the role of government," Vasan said, noting that he himself is a parent of three young children who are too young for social media, but already spend too much time on devices.

Education, advocacy, research and evaluation, policy and regulation are in the long-term plan, he said. "And some of that regulation may require litigation in order to get there. We're going to explore every tool in our toolkit — the mayor's committed to this, I'm committed to this and this city is committed to this."

The city took the first steps on its "roadmap for action" with a summit, recently convened by Mayor Eric Adams and Vasan. They spoke with mental health experts, parent groups, government agencies, educators and high school students (on a day off from school) to lay out a plan to protect the mental health of teens and children in the wake of reports by the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Psychological Association (APA) recognizing the potential harm to young people caused by social media.

The mayor billed it as the first stake in the ground towards a long-term citywide strategy, one Vasan told is critically needed.

The summit was first announced in March as part of "Care, Community, Action: A Mental Health Plan for New York City." It included two panel discussions — "The Future of Social Media and its Implications for Children's Mental Health" and "Challenges and Opportunities in Regulating Social Media Technologies" — as well as four working sessions focused on public health, research, policy and litigation.

"I know people don't like the word regulation, but this is an unregulated exposure and frankly, we're playing Russian Roulette with our kids," Vasan said. "I'm not comfortable as a parent doing that, and I'm not comfortable as the city's doctor doing that."

The summit also follows recent reports of a social media account focused on humiliating unsuspecting New Dorp High School students, including more than 250 posts since late April. The posts include photos taken without people's knowledge, offensive language, videos of in-school and out-of-school fights, and lewd content. It's one of several accounts run by anonymous users, including another that shares confessions of students in the school, reported.

The results of such postings for unwitting victims can be serious, Vasan said.

"It's very clear we're in a youth mental health crisis," Vasan said, pointing to research finding that 38% of New York City high schoolers reported feeling so sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks during the past 12 months that they stopped doing their usual activities.

The same year, 42% of Latino students and 41% of Black students reported feeling sad or hopeless, compared to just under 30% of white students. And, over the past 10 years, rates of suicidal ideation among high schoolers increased by more than 34%, the mayor's office said in announcing the summit.

Risks to young people online run the gamut from access to inappropriate images of violent, racist, sexist, homophobic and sexualized content to photos that distort body image. Material online can be cruel, hurtful and scar young people socially, experts say, because the ones making the cruel comments are often anonymous.

"The kind of stuff people say to you online, it's not the kind of stuff that people say to you in the hallway in school," Vasan said. "We've exposed our kids to this unregulated hallway."

And recently reported that two young Staten Islanders — and the parent of one of them — took their own lives after the young people experienced cruel taunting and isolation online.

Instructions don't exist for parents, the way they do for other things our children use, Vasan said, and that should change.

"When you buy a toy for your child, it comes with a package insert . . . it has a lot of information about how to keep your kids safe . . . but social media and technology has none of it."

The commitment the city is making, Vasan said, is to explores ways to reduce and reshape the digital exposure that right now is "entirely unregulated and entirely without any rules or guardrails or guidance."

We've left parents on the front line, he said.

Adams' mental health plan includes a digital mental health program for city high school-aged teens, a suicide prevention pilot program at NYC Health and Hospitals for youth entering emergency departments for suicide attempts, and Health Department-led community-based suicide prevention program to specifically serve Black and Brown youth.

The United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy recently released an advisory calling attention to the growing concerns about the effects of social media on the mental health of youth.

According to Murthy's advisory, up to 95% of youth ages 13-17 reported using a social media platform, with more than a third saying they use it "almost constantly." And while age 13 is the commonly required minimum age to use social media platforms in the United States, nearly 40% of children ages 8-12 use them.

© 2023 Staten Island Advance, N.Y. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.