Like smoking near children: Addiction is changing how people see social media, experts say

Warning comes after New York's Mayor declared social media a public health hazard

FILE PHOTO: A customer holds the iPhone X during the global launch of the new Apple product in central Sydney, Australia, November 3, 2017.     REUTERS/David Gray/File Photo
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Social media use could soon be viewed as being equally harmful to society as smoking in public, a leading expert has said.

The comments come after New York's Mayor Eric Adams declared social media to be a public health hazard last week.

A trend analyst said the decision led to parallels with how attitudes towards smoking evolved over the years.

"Smoking used to be ubiquitous and it was perfectly acceptable for people to smoke in front of their children, as well as other people's children," said economist and future trends analyst Bronwyn Williams.

Things can quickly go from completely acceptable to totally abhorrent
Bronwyn Williams

"Smoking was once even recommended by doctors and was classed as completely normal, when it's anything but normal.

"To accept it was a choice that society made. We chose to revoke that choice when we saw the actual effects [that smoking was having]."

Last week's announcement by New York's mayor suggested perceptions of social media could be taking a similar path, she added.

"It's very similar in that things that are completely normalised and socially acceptable can become anything but in the space of a few short years," said the South African futurist.

"Things can quickly go from completely acceptable to totally abhorrent."

Mr Adams said he was declaring social media to be a public health hazard because companies such as TikTok, YouTube and Facebook were fuelling a mental health crisis, according to a report in the Washington Post.

He said social media would be treated like other public health hazards, such as "tobacco and guns".

"Now we are starting to see what is happening with depression and suicide rates [caused by social media use]," said Ms Williams.

Addiction in large numbers

New York is not the only part of the US with a social media problem. A recent survey from Statista found almost 40 per cent of social media users in the US said it was addictive, with nine per cent admitting they were completely addicted.

Earlier this week, the chief executives of Meta, X, TikTok, Snap and Discord were summoned to testify before the US Congress over alleged harm to children caused by their platforms.

Meta chief executive Mark Zuckerberg apologised to families who were holding up pictures of children they said had been harmed by social media.

He pledged to work closely with lawmakers to make his company's platforms safer for teenagers.

Ms Williams said she expected other countries and regions to follow New York's lead when it came to tackling mental health issues created by social media.

"What we're already starting to see is some countries approach it from a censorship point of view. Other methods are starting to emerge too," she said.

"Firewalls like they have in China and outright bans are the most blunt examples.

"Age restrictions are also being explored by various legislators across the OECD nations already. More regions will further restrict social media especially for [use by] children and minors."

More than 60 per cent of young Arabs think social media use is leading to a decline in their mental well-being, according to the results of the Arab Youth Survey 2023.

Anti-social media

In the UAE, people who take photos of others without their approval and post them online could face prison sentences and fines of up to Dh500,000 ($136,000), prosecutors previously told The National.

Earlier this week, a man was arrested in the US on suspicion of beheading his own father and posting the footage to YouTube. The footage remained online for six hours before being removed, horrifying users of the platform.

Another expert said the perils of social media were all too apparent, especially when it came to children and young people.

"The design of social networks and the content posted on them is designed to capture the attention of users, in much the same way as sweet candy attracts children, creating an addiction that is difficult to break," said Prof Nathalie Martial-Braz, vice-chancellor of Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi.

"Children and teenagers exposed to many images and very short sounds are over-solicited and over-stimulated, creating an inability to concentrate for longer periods of time.

"Social networks are first and foremost dangerous on an individual level in that they overexpose teenagers to too many idealised images at an age when comparison can lead to a significant loss of self-confidence and self-esteem.

"[Social media platforms] can also be dangerous at a social level because of the ideological confinement described, which encourages radicalisation, conspiracy theorising and disinformation, particularly the scientific and medical disinformation we saw during the Covid-19 pandemic."

New York's declaration that social media was a public health hazard was justified, another expert added.

"I think it is fair because excessive use of social media has a high potential to increase mental health issues in adults, resulting in feelings of anxiety, depression, and loneliness," said Adveta Dwivedi, growth hacker and head of marketing at Gamers Hub Media Events.

"It is all tied up to decreased self-esteem and a distorted sense of reality, as individuals often compare their lives to the curated version of others. This builds feelings of inadequacy and contributes to a cycle of negative emotions within society."

Updated: February 02, 2024, 12:16 PM