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Social Media is a health hazard; What India is doing to curtail this hazard?

Recently the mayor of New York City, Eric Adams, declared social media as a health hazard, especially for young teenagers. The city became the first major city of the world to do so. The mayor said: “Companies like TikTok, YouTube and Facebook are fueling a mental health crisis by designing their platforms with addictive and dangerous features. We cannot stand by and let Big-Tech monetize our children’s privacy and jeopardize their mental health.”

“As was done with tobacco and guns, we are treating social media like other public health hazards and ensuring that tech companies take responsibility for their products,” Adams added.

Following the announcement made by the mayor, Dr. Ashwin Vasan, New York City’s commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, issued guidelines that offer guidance to parents, health care providers and educators about how they can help young people to tackle the various social media platforms and develop immunity to the negative side effects of social media.

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Deny smartphones before age 15

One of the suggestions is that parents and guardians should not give children a smartphone that could access social media until they are at least 15 years old. Even after that they should review the progress of their child from time to time. There is no point that can be called a ‘safe age’ for children to use smartphones or have access to social media, according to Dr. Vasan.

Taking heed of the warnings from experts, different states in the US are trying to limit or restrict social media for minors. The state of Utah was the first in America to enact laws limiting social media use by children. Texas and Louisiana have passed legislation that requires parental consent before kids can sign up for social media websites.

High time for India to step in

It is high time that enforcement of similar laws is discussed in India too. Indian society is a blend of different cultures, customs and traditions. Under the anonymity that social media provides, it is easy to isolate and bully persons belonging to certain backgrounds. Children would be especially vulnerable to this kind of bullying and vitriolic comments or become influenced by fake news.

Fake news is the most rampant and harmful aspect of modern society. With the advent of more and more advanced types of artificial intelligence, it will be very difficult to distinguish fake from genuine even for a professional, let alone a child.

Those whom children imagine to be friends on social media may not actually be friends. In extreme cases these hoaxers may even exploit the children by manipulating their feelings and emotions. Children who have tender minds could become anxious or depressed or be converted to extreme ideology.

Children sometimes spend hours surfing social media sites while neglecting their studies and work. They may develop a complex about being popular and focus excessively on how many likes and comments their posts have obtained on social media platforms. Social media provides instant gratification for the need to be famous and popular even though the subject may be frivolous.

In January 2024, the CEOs of global tech giants Meta (Facebook), X (Twitter), Snap (Snapchat) and TikTok were summoned to a US Senate hearing about the failure of their companies to protect children online.

Parents of those children who had suffered because of the inaction of these companies were also present. They outlined the dangers that children face online and also the prevalence of material related to child abuse. Some of them were parents whose children had committed suicide after traumatic experiences on social media.

Zuckerberg apologises

Senator Josh Hawley questioned Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta and asked if he would at least apologize to the parents who were present. Zuckerberg stood up, faced the parents and said: “I’m sorry for everything you have all been through. No one should go through the things that your families have suffered.”

Zuckerberg had earlier appeared in front of the US Congress on issues ranging from misinformation on Facebook to non-consensual sharing of user data.

But whether these multi-millionaire CEOs and owners of social media platforms will do any more than apologise is anybody’s guess. For now, it is up to the government to enact laws that will ensure safety and security for all users, especially children of impressionable age. If not, social media will turn into a jungle where might is right and our children will be the first casualties..

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