Wednesday, June 19, 2024

It’s Wednesday, June 19, 2024.

I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Should Health Warning Labels Appear on Social Media? US Surgeon General Warns of Social Media’s Impacts on Children

The Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy has called for a warning label concerning health to be put on social media platforms. The Surgeon General’s statement was made in the context of public argument. He held a press conference. He also wrote a major piece which was published as an opinion piece in the editorial pages of the New York Times yesterday. Vivek H. Murthy is serving his second term as Surgeon General of the United States, and what he’s called for here raises some very interesting questions. First of all, I guess the most obvious question is, is social media dangerous?

In this case, the Surgeon General is directing his primary attention towards children and young people. Even as it’s pretty well documentable that social media comes with all kinds of health concerns for just about anyone, he is pointing to the fact that children and young people are particularly susceptible to damage. And one of the significant issues of harm has to do with something just as simple as body image. The Surgeon General cited documentation indicating that an unprecedented number of American adolescents are now expressing a very low body image, partly because of the messaging that is coming over social media. But we all know it’s more than that. In some cases, that messaging is just downright toxic.

Now frankly, let me just point out that this is a concern when it comes to adolescents that long predates the development of social media. As you are looking at the challenge of every single civilization, every single civilization seems to identify one of its challenges as assisting young people in the transition from childhood to adulthood. In its very nature, that’s going to be a disruptive process. It’s going to require an awful lot of cultural energy, moral clarity. And of course as Christians understand, the Lord’s intention was that it include a mother and a father in the context of a family. And the biblical worldview would be extended to an intact community. And so you look at that and you recognize, okay, we have made adolescents more dangerous already. All kinds of issues, the sexual revolution, the divorce revolution, sociological innovation, even the industrial revolution, separating families intergenerationally, we understand that adolescence was already an issue. And then you add social media and no one should be surprised that we have a public health crisis.

Now, there are some aspects of this that are just absolutely fascinating. One is the fact that the media seems to think this is a recent discovery, and that’s just not the case. The second thing is that the involvement of the Surgeon General of the United States underlines the fact that this is being defined as a public health crisis. Now, all this raises some very interesting questions. One of them is, are these kinds of warning labels effective? Will the people who are for them say they are, the people who are against them say they are not. One thing that becomes clear is that simple words on a package are not likely to have a lot of impact. And apparently over time they just become a part of the label anyway.

But when it comes to something like a social media platform, it isn’t at all clear what a warning label could be, much less what it could accomplish. And frankly, even as is true in the case of so many issues, no one’s going to suggest you go drink water out of a swamp. The reality is that if the fact that social media represent a public health crisis particularly for adolescents, if this is something new to you in terms of thinking, well, something’s wrong with your thinking that frankly isn’t going to be fixed by a warning label.

There’s another aspect to this I just have to mention. And I haven’t seen anyone in the secular media point to this. Do we really believe that parents are now going to have some new kind of moral ammunition to use with their children and teenagers that they didn’t already have? Are we supposed to believe that you’re going to have parents call the child into the living room and say, “We thought it was okay, but now the Surgeon General says that it might be dangerous, so we’re going to take your smartphone away.” Now, I’m not saying that that couldn’t happen or that in some isolated cases it won’t happen. I’m simply saying that we’ve known this for a long time and frankly the toxins are not just about children and teenagers.

But we do understand that society and parents, society and Christians would affirm that we have a particular responsibility to the youngest among us. And we also recognize some particular susceptibilities that come to those who are younger. And one of those is simply the lack of context for understanding. One of the things that came up in this was that bad body image problem that is being reported by so many young adults. And that’s coming by comparison and frankly just explicit messaging on social media. So that’s something new, but honestly it’s not entirely new. It’s just that when you look at social media, particularly when you combine it with a smartphone, you are looking at a particularly toxic combination because then that kind of usage, that kind of exposure, can be when the young person is entirely alone with no external referent. And frankly with very little ability to separate image and reality, truth and fiction.

But again, you just have to step back and say, does the Surgeon General really believe that if indeed there were to be such a warning put somehow on a social media platform site, hard to imagine exactly how that might be done, it is not likely that people will give that any more attention than they do all those boxes that come up saying click this and click that. You’ve given permission for all kinds of people to know all kinds of things simply because you want to go ahead and get to that sports score. In his New York Times statement the Surgeon General said, “It’s time to require a Surgeon General’s warning label on social media platforms stating that social media is associated with significant mental health harms for adolescents. A surgeon general’s warning label,” He says, “which requires congressional action, would regularly remind parents and adolescents that social media has not been proved safe.” Very interesting language. You want to notice that the Surgeon General didn’t say social media platforms are dangerous. He did not say that social media exposure is causing harm.

It is because he is an officer of the federal government and he is speaking with official language, so he can’t cite the fact that it has been proved in terms of some kind of incontrovertible evidence to be dangerous. Instead, the language was, it hasn’t proved not to be dangerous. It hasn’t proved itself to be safe. Very interesting legal maneuver there. But once again, it removes the situation from really much plausibility that it’s going to make much of a difference. Later in the article, Dr. Murthy said, “To be clear, a warning label would not on its own make social media safe for young people. The advisory I issued a year ago about social media and young people’s mental health included specific recommendations for policymakers, platforms and the public to make social media safer for kids. Such measures which already have strong bipartisan support remain the priority.” Well, they might remain the priority, but the fact is at this point it’s still just a list. And that’s because the problem is obvious.

It is virtually impossible for any intellectually honest individual, certainly an adult, much less a parent, to say that social media is not causing harm to children and young people. It’s virtually impossible for any educator to claim that it is not a major problem. It is very difficult for any Christian ministry involved, particularly with families and youth, not to be able to say, this is a huge issue even in church. And I want to be clear, I’m not saying here that this proposal from the United States Surgeon General is wrong, I’m simply saying it’s ineffectual. It’s simply wrong to think this would make a big difference. Now, that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t happen, that doesn’t mean that there would not be some value to it. But stating the obvious, is something that probably is not going to work when people are already ignoring the obvious. And that is to say there are very dangerous, deleterious effects to social media exposure. And the younger you go, the greater the susceptibility.

Part II

Where Are the Parents?: The Real Problem Behind the Adolescent Social Media Crisis

Later the surgeon General wrote, “There is no seatbelt for parents to click, no helmet to snap in place, no assurance that trusted experts have investigated and ensured that these platforms are safe for our kids. There are just parents and their children trying to figure out on their own, pitted against some of the best product engineers and most well-resourced companies in the world.” Well, there is something important in that particular statement, and that is the fact that there are those who have produced these social media platforms who have everything to gain by maximizing the exposure of every single human being to those platforms every single second of our time. And that’s because they are exploiting that opportunity. They have nearly eliminated the ability of some human beings to even live in silence and undisturbed thought. This is a major menace. I will argue, I’m not going to say that it’s not yet proved that they’re safe. I’m going to say they can’t be safe. Now, I’m not saying that you have to get off all social media and you have to get out of the digital world.

I am saying you do need to count the cost, and we do have to understand that our Christian discipleship extends to everything we do, everything we see, everything we willingly hear and everything to which we expose ourselves. And as Christians, we know we’re absolutely responsible for everything we say all the time everywhere, online or not. But as we look at this, it is interesting to see on the one hand kind of the extension of the liberal argument, the more progressivist argument about the power of government. Government is now to be the teacher, government is now to be the healthcare officer, government is now to be the parent. Is that what’s going on here? Now, one of the very interesting things that was said by the Surgeon General of the United States is that parents need backup. Now, there’s a sense in which that would be the right role if there is a role for the community or a government, it would be to back up parents.

But in this case, what we do not have really is a backup for parents. What we have here is the government leaning in and saying, “You really need to do something, and as you think about doing something, you might want to think about doing a little something.” This is where Christians have to go far beyond that logic. We have to understand that yes, when it comes to parenting our own children and teenagers, we can’t just hand them a smartphone and access to social media. But we can’t just turn to the Surgeon General and say, “Well, how much of this is safe?” We have to act as Christian parents. We have to act as Christian churches thinking about these issues and advising parents. And with the Christians who are talking about these things in a godly conversation, we have to learn how to put these things into perspective.

And quite frankly, we also have to learn that one of the most basic Christian responsibilities, one of the most basic evidences of Christian maturity is to be able to look at anything the world offers and say no to it. Or at least to say no to it on the terms the world insists upon. Now, it’s something else to look at some basic facts that should be very informative to us, such as the fact that the people in Silicon Valley who’ve come up with these platforms, the people in Silicon Valley who have pioneered these technologies, they tell us honestly over and over again they do not let their own children and teenagers have access to them. This was true of someone like Steve Jobs, famously started Apple Computing, later just Apple, the father of the smartphone.

This is true of at least some of those who are running the social media platforms who make very clear they wouldn’t let their children or teenagers on them. That should be very instructive. Just as a matter of fact, the very people who know how habit-forming, how addictive, and that’s not an exaggeration here and frankly it’s a term in this context, you don’t even need the psychotherapeutic revolution for. All you need is the evidence of say, being in a public place and looking at the behavior. You look at this and you recognize we really don’t need a Surgeon General to tell us we have a problem. That’s not to say it’s wrong for the Surgeon General to say so, it’s not to say it’s wrong for the New York Times to run the article, it’s not wrong for the Surgeon General to take the opportunity to prompt the conversation. But I do want to come back and say, this is not the moral authority that for Christians is most important.

That moral authority comes down to the word of God and the Christian truth as mediated into the lives of children and young people primarily through their parents. Who counter culturally enough, are actually those who are supposed to act on behalf of their children and that includes saying no to any number of variable opportunities for exposure. Now, just as we’re thinking about this and understanding how the world’s going to think about this, well, the social media world’s going to push back on this. The New York Times in a news article that started on page one yesterday says this, “Technology companies are likely to argue that the science on the harmful effects of social media is not settled.” Argument number one, the science is not settled. You know when they’ll admit the science is settled? At no point. You don’t have to wait for the science to settle on the fact that lying is a sin and that disobedience to parents is wrong.

In this case, I would suggest to parents, your responsibility is develop your own science and apply it. You’re certainly going to see the technology company make that argument. But then the Times also points to a second argument, “They will also invoke free speech law arguing that the government cannot force companies to carry a product warning, which is sometimes described as compelled speech.” Now, at this point you have to recognize the social media platforms have been making this argument from the very beginning. It’s not like they’ve been hiding their agenda. They are going to make the argument that you can’t compel us to say this. And I’m going to go ahead and say without being compelled that even if they have to say it, I don’t think it’s going to have much effect. So on so many of these issues, it turns out to be a big headline. And frankly, the issue turns out to be not only as big as the headline suggests but as Christians understand, even bigger.

But the solution is also more explicit and more direct than the New York Times or the Surgeon General of the United States want to recognize. The beginning of this responsibility isn’t with the government, it is with parents. And at the end of the day, parents are going to have to make the decision. They’re going to have to set the policy and they’re going to have to apply it.

Part III

So Is it a Ban on Cell Phones or Not?: Los Angeles School Board Bans Cell Phones in School, Or Sort Of, Maybe

But secondly, in a related development, another headline and you’re going to love this one, this one comes from the Wall Street Journal. And the headline is, “Los Angeles School District Votes in Favor of Cell Phone Ban.” Now, that’s quite a headline, Los Angeles School District in this case it’s one of the biggest in the country. It’s the Los Angeles Unified School District. We are told that the school district voted this week on Tuesday, “To ban cell phones during the entire school day.”

The Wall Street Journal goes on to say, “Becoming the largest school system to take such a step in an era of concern about youth cell phone use and social media addiction.” Now, I can tell you that teachers have had enemies for a very long time. Education has had enemies. But honestly, I will tell you that most of the teachers that I know will tell you that the digital devices are the greatest enemy they have ever had in terms of teaching children and young people. And by young people in this case, I’m shooting way past high school. Well, you might look at this headline and say, “Well, this is really big news.” One of the biggest school systems in the United States has voted in favor of a cell phone ban. Until you read the article and you understand, wait, that’s not exactly what they voted on. And no one knows exactly what the policy is going to look like, but you get about six or seven paragraphs into the news story and the ban’s not looking like much of a ban.

Consider this paragraph, “The move by the Los Angeles School Board which voted five to two in favor of the Ban, clears the way for school leaders to create a policy on how to ban devices that would take effect by January.” Then listen to the next sentence. “The extent of the ban could vary by grade level, the board said.” Well, wait just a minute, ban at least in the old use of the English language meant ban. You put in a headline, the district votes in favor of cell phone ban, you get a few paragraphs later and know all they did was to approve the process to develop a policy that in the end, at least for some grades, might not end up being any sort of a ban at all. This is headline abuse. One board member went well beyond what the Surgeon General of the United States said this week when he said, “The research is clear the harmful effects on kids’ mental health, the physical health, their academics, this is an idea whose time has come.”

Well, that was short and succinct, but if you’re going to say that wouldn’t you actually follow that up with a ban that means something like, oh, I don’t know, a ban. One final thought on this. It turns out that almost everyone involved in this equation comes back to say, “You know who the major enemy is when you’re looking at this kind of a significant step coming on social media use, or cell phone use, digital device use among teenagers in school, you know where the major opposition comes from?” From the students you might say? Well, it turns out there is opposition there, but you know there’s bigger, more powerful opposition from their parents because it turns out that many parents have simply decided that they now are required to be in constant 24/7 digital connection with their offspring.

Now, as a parent and as a grandparent, I have to say, I can understand this in part. On the other hand, why in the world do you send them to school if it’s supposed to be an extension of your kitchen table? And I would also ask the question, what are you going to do when these young people go to college? But then again, you can probably answer that question for yourself. We all know of an incredible number of young people who quite frankly are seemingly unable to make some very basic decisions and negotiate much of life because they are completely tethered to the smartphone. Now, on the other hand, there’s a wonderful aspect to this that just affirms how much parents love their children, how much children actually love their parents. And quite frankly, how fundamental and basic that relationship is. Yeah, that is really important and I don’t see anyone in the secular world saying, “How exactly does that happen?”

But I also want to state that it is the goal of parents actually to help their children to develop into a functional adulthood. And there is plenty of evidence if you’re looking for evidence, that the smartphone can be, at least at times, a hindrance to that development, not a help. I also want to point to what one board member said in the debate there in Los Angeles, you’re going to love this one. This particular board member identified as George McKenna said, “It’s a civil right to have your cell phone.” Now remember, let’s think about it for a moment. We’re not talking about the teachers, we’re not talking about the parents, we’re talking about the students and here you have a Los Angeles Unified School District board member stating that children and teenagers have a constitutional right, a civil right to access their cell phone.

Well, how long is it going to be before a certain number of, say middle school and high school students show up with an attorney to meet with their parents to make sure their parents are fully aware of the law? You look at some of these arguments and you say, how in the world can this argument be made with a straight face? And then you just have to understand this is where we are. That kind of argument was made not only with a straight face, it was made in public in public debate over a policy by an elected school board member. So there we are.

Part IV

Biden Administration Coerces G-7 Commitment to Abortion: Joe Biden’s Is Committed to Abortion Rights, Everywhere and All the Time

Well, all right, we need to shift now to the international context, and I want to go to what happened in recent days with the meeting of the G7 democracies. They met just days ago in Italy. The G7, who in the world is that? Well, the number seven identifies seven nations that are linked together in this very powerful group, and it’s dominated by the Western democracies. And frankly at this point, it’s down to the Western democracies and Japan.

The seven nations are the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, and Japan. So that’s the list, that’s the seven. Now, there has been a larger list. There’s been a G8, but Russia is now off the list. And there had been other meetings with even bigger numbers because at one point it appeared that the global economy was moving in such a way that you would have government actors who would be acting in concert, and the number could be a lot larger than seven or eight or nine or 10 or 11, but, and Christians shouldn’t be surprised by this, it didn’t turn out that way. The globalist dream turned out to be a fractured failed dream. And so some of the nations that have been represented at previous meetings of the sort were not invited to this meeting, and it’s hard to imagine conditions under which they would be invited again. And so at this point we are down to the G7, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Canada. But what was one of the big issues of discussion, of course, one of them was Ukraine.

One of them is the invasion by Russia, the threat to world peace, the determination of these nations to oppose Russia and its aggression. You know what was another big issue they discussed? Abortion, “reproductive health.” And you know who made certain that was the case? The United States, which means the Biden administration, which means President Biden himself. This is big news and Christians in the United States need to be very aware that this took place. For example, the Washington Post reported with a headline, Biden Presses to Keep Reproductive Rights in G7 Agreement. The issue of abortion and the defense of abortion as a part of these leaders came up in a previous G7 statement that came from Hiroshima in Japan. And in this election cycle, President Biden wanted to make certain that the explicit mention of abortion and abortion rights, sometimes rephrased as a woman’s reproductive freedom, was put in the commitment of these political leaders as they were supposedly looking at grave threats to Western civilization.

That tells you just how committed the Biden administration in general and President Biden himself is to this issue. The fanaticism on this is so urgent that the President of the United States openly said that he might not sign a final agreement unless it met his muster in terms of the eagerness and comprehensiveness with which the statement championed abortion. Now, what makes this bizarre is that even with this, and even with the headline being the president’s demand of this, you have a newspaper like the Washington Post report this with a straight face, “Biden, a lifelong Catholic has not been an unwavering backer of abortion rights throughout his long political career. But in recent years, he’s become a firmer advocate of that position putting him in line with fellow Democrats.” The Dobbs decision at the paper, “Has animated Democrats and led to several notable successes by the party in recent elections.”

So when are they going to stop reporting this self-contradictory reporting that somehow Biden a lifelong Catholic has had some kind of moral qualms on abortion? Because you’re not going to hear that from the President. The President who’s the one person who could speak to this with some credibility, all he is saying is that he is not even going to sign a G-7 statement that isn’t eager enough in its advocacy for abortion. And we know at this point this means basically categorical support of abortion. And he’s doing this even as he is directly denying the authority of the Roman Catholic Church on this issue, and yet he claims to be a lifelong Catholic. And the Washington Post will identify him just that way, suggesting that he’s been an unwavering backer of abortion rights throughout his long political career. Well, he has changed his position somewhat, but it’s an understatement to say, “In recent years he’s become a firmer advocate of that position putting him in line with fellow Democrats.”

No, he’s basically now for a radical assertion of abortion in circumstances that go far beyond where you might even expect he would speak to this issue. He’s now using it in a coercive way in a G7 economic meeting. Now, there is actually more to talk about out of the G7 meeting just in terms of the threat of Russia, the reality of Ukraine. We’ll talk more about those things as we go forward. But there is one other aspect of this that the national and international media have noted, and this sets us up for something we need to discuss in coming days. And that is what in the world is going on in European politics? Because it is the G7, and yet it is being reported very clearly that the host of this meeting, and that is Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, she might be the only member of the G7 present at this meeting to be backed for the next one, because we are getting ready to go into a political cycle in which there could be an absolute upending of virtually all European politics. And for that matter, the question of the White House.

So this is unprecedented change coming at a time when you look at a picture of those leaders gathered for the G7, and you realize that with the exception of the host, the rather conservative in the European sense, Italian Prime Minister, the rest of them might be gone by the next meeting. We’re living in times of political volatility, no doubt about that. But as we need to discuss, this is a political volatility with so much at stake and frankly in a way that is unprecedented in our political history. We understand we are looking at very volatile times. We need to understand why the times are so volatile and what that volatility means to us. But at this point, it’s just really important, if tragic, to recognize that the President of the United States put the issue of abortion so front and center that he said he wouldn’t even sign a final agreement on economics unless it was adequately pro-abortion.

Yes, elections have consequences. Keep that in mind.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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