• The Audience
  • The Argument
  • Background
  • What Parents Can Do
  • Why It Matters

Social media platforms should come with a surgeon general’s warning, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote in The New York Times today, illustrating government’s waning tolerance for social media’s deleterious effect on children.

The Audience

A surgeon general’s warning, like those plastered on cigarette cartons, can’t be issued without Congress’ approval. Murthy wrote his opinion to convince congresspeople to pull the trigger on a social media warning.

The Argument

Murthy isolates social media as an “important contributor” to the “mental health crisis among young people,” and suggests a warning could lower its presence in young people’s lives.

“Evidence from tobacco studies show warning labels can increase awareness and change behavior,” he writes, further arguing such cautions would encourage parents to limit their child’s time online.

Murthy envisions a surgeon general’s warning on social media as one of many congressional policies aimed at making social media safer, including legislation to:

  • Protect kids from exploitation, abuse and inappropriate content.
  • Inhibit some of social media’s habit-forming features, including infinite scroll and autoplay.
  • Stop social media companies from collecting kids’ data, which can be used to create more addictive algorithms.
  • Force social media companies to share data concerning the safety of their product, and allow third-parties to complete safety audits of their platforms.

Murthy argues such policies are in line with the government’s traditional response to public safety emergencies:

Faced with high levels of car-accident-related deaths in the mid- to late 20th century, lawmakers successfully demanded seatbelts, airbags, crash testing and a host of other measures that ultimately made cars safer. This January the F.A.A. grounded about 170 planes when a door plug came off one Boeing 737 Max 9 while the plane was in the air. And the following month, a massive recall of dairy products was conducted because of a listeria contamination that claimed two lives.

Why is it that we have failed to respond to the harms of social media when they are no less urgent or widespread than those posed by unsafe cars, planes or food?


Murthy spends relatively little time backing up his claim that social media contributes to young people’s mental illness — not because he doesn’t have evidence, but because he has already proven his point.

In a surgeon general’s advisory on released last May, Murthy cites evidence showing:

1. Social Media Use is Nearly Ubiquitous
  • Up to 95% of 13- to 17-year-olds use social media, with one-third reporting they use it “almost constantly.”
  • Nearly 40% of kids ages 8-12 use social media, regardless of platforms’ age restrictions.
2. Social Media Harms Young People’s Mental Health
  • In an experiment tracking the introduction of social media at U.S. colleges, the platform’s roll-out correlated with a 9% increase in depression and 12% increase in anxiety among students.
  • A study of nearly 11,000 14-year-olds found higher social media use “predicted poor sleep, online harassment, poor body image, low self-esteem, and higher depressive symptom scores.”
  • Adolescents who used social media report lower levels of life satisfaction — particularly among 11- to 12-year-old girls and 14- to 15-year-old boys.
  • More than two dozen studies of social media platforms found posts depicting self-harm, including partial asphyxiation inducing seizures and cutting causing “significant bleeding.” These same studies found such content could normalize self-harm and cause children to harm themselves.
3. Social Media Affects Brain Development
  • Brains go through a “highly sensitive period of development” between ages 10 and 19.
  • Research shows heavy social media use in this stage of development can change how the “amygdala and prefrontal cortex develop”, impacting a child’s “emotional learning, behavior, impulse control, emotional regulation and ability to moderate social behavior.”
  • A recent model of social media usage suggests as much as 31% of all usage could be caused by lack of self-control, exacerbated by extreme use habits.
  • Some research shows social media can cause the brain to form addiction pathways, similar to those associated with gambling addiction.
4. Reduced Social Media Use Can Improve Kids’ Mental Health
  • A small study of college-aged kids found the severity of subjects’ depression lessened when they reduced social media use to thirty-minutes a day. The effects were especially poignant among kids with existing severe depression.
  • Another small study found young adults and adults who abstained from social media for four weeks reported higher levels of subjective well-being like happiness and life — equivalent to 25-40% of the effect of other mental health interventions like therapy.

The advisory’s evidence echoes the findings of contemporary investigators, including social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and previous reporting by the Daily Citizen.

What Parents Can Do

Murthy, father to a 6- and 7-year-old, expresses empathy for parents muddling through an online age.

There’s 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 it out on their own, pitted against some of the best product engineers and most well-resourced companies in the world.

That doesn’t mean parents are powerless, however. Murthy recommends:

  • Banning phones during dinner, bed-time and family time to “safeguard kids’ sleep and real-life connections,” which Murthy says directly effect mental health.
  • Keep kids off social media until high school. Like Haidt, Murthy recommends enforcing abstinence “working together with other families to establish shared rules, so no parents have to struggle alone or feel guilty when their teens say they are the only one who has to endure limits.”
Why It Matters

As the saying goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire — and social media is generating a lot of smoke. Be it data on exploitation, sextortion, addiction or problems sleeping, social media is consistently and continually implicated in compromising children’s safety.

Parents should think long and hard about allowing their child on these platforms, no matter how popular they are. Remember, no child has ever been harmed by lack of access to social media.

Additional Articles and Resources

Four Ways to Protect Your Kids from Bad Tech, from Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt

Social Psychologist Finds Smartphones and Social Media Harm Kids in These Four Ways

Teen Boys Falling Prey to Financial Sextortion — Here’s What Parents Can Do

Meta Takes Steps to Prevent Kids from Sexting

Horrifying Instagram Investigation Indicts Modern Parenting

‘The Dirty Dozen List’ — Corporations Enable and Profit from Sexual Exploitation

‘Big Tech’ Device Designs Dangerous for Kids, Research Finds

Survey Finds Teens Use Social Media More Than Four Hours Per Day — Here’s What Parents Can Do

The Harmful Effects of a Screen-Filled Culture on Kids

Social Media Age Restriction — Which States Have Them and Why They’re So Hard to Pass

REPORT Act Becomes Law

Plugged in Parent’s Guide to Today’s Technology