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Is the Surgeon General’s Report on Social Media a Cultural Tipping Point?

Sometimes, common sense isn’t immediately common.

Taking smoking, for example. These days, everyone knows that there’s a proven link between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer. And that correlation is right there on the label of every pack of cigarettes: “SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, and May Complicate Pregnancy.”

That warning (or various iterations of it) came courtesy of a landmark 1964 report by Surgeon General Luther Terry. It clearly stated the scientific evidence for a link between a particular behavior and a particular outcome. While causation is notoriously difficult to prove scientifically, this influential report made exactly that case: Smoke cigarettes, increase your risk for terrible health outcomes.

The report  changed Americans’ collective behavior radically. In 1964, 42% of Americans smoked, according to Harvard Health Publishing. As of 2021, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that number has fallen to just 11.5% of adults ages 18 and older.

In the years that followed that 1964 report, a series of new laws restricted who could by cigarettes and how they were advertised. In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed a law that prohibited TV and radio ads for cigarettes. The Surgeon General’s warning above was mandated to be printed on cigarette packs in 1984, a big enough news story that I still remember the publicity when it was instituted. In 1997, the cartoony mascot Joe Camel was banned, because it potentially made the habit seem fun and appealing to kids.

And there’s been a growing recognition culturally that smoking in movies leads to teen initiation of the habit, too, with both the CDC and Nation Institutes of Health (among others) reporting on that potential correlation.

Now at this point, you might be wondering what any of that history lesson has to do with social media. Potentially, quite a bit.

On May 23, United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a report that elevates the alarm being sounded with regard to the potentially damaging health affects of social media on young users: Surgeon General’s Advisory on Social Media and Youth Mental Health.

The 26-page report synthesizes and summarizes much of the research that Plugged In and many others have been reporting on for more than a decade. It’s worth reading in its entirety, as it’s a very measured, evidence-based assessment of social media’s potential benefits as well as the ways it correlates with negative health outcomes.

Dr. Murthy notes that the brains of  children and adolescents are still growing and maturing significantly. And using social media impacts that process. Here’s a portion of what he has to say about that important season of development:

“Brain development is a critical factor to consider when assessing the risk for harm. Adolescents, ages 10 to 19, are undergoing a highly sensitive period of brain development. This is a period when risk-taking behaviors reach their peak, when well-being experiences the greatest fluctuations, and when mental health challenges such as depression typically emerge. Furthermore, in early adolescence, when identities and sense of self-worth are forming, brain development is especially susceptible to social pressures, peer opinions, and peer comparison. Frequent social media use may be associated with distinct changes in the developing brain in the amygdala (important for emotional learning and behavior) and the prefrontal cortex (important for impulse control, emotional regulation, and moderating social behavior), and could increase sensitivity to social rewards and punishments. … Adolescent social media use is predictive of a subsequent decrease in life satisfaction for certain developmental stages including for girls 11–13 years old and boys 14–15 years old. Because adolescence is a vulnerable period of brain development, social media exposure during this period warrants additional scrutiny.”

Dr. Murthy doesn’t come at the subject with an axe to grind or a cudgel to pound. He acknowledges that social media can have some real benefits for adolescents by  “providing positive community and connection with others who share identities, abilities, and interests. It can provide access to important information and create a space for self-expression. The ability to form and maintain friendships online and develop social connections are among the positive effects of social media use for youth. These relationships can afford opportunities to have positive interactions with more diverse peer groups than are available to them offline and can provide important social support to youth.”

That said, Dr. Murthy’s report spends a great deal of time unpacking what scientists have already discovered about the potentially harmful affects of too much time spent on social media by children.

“Over the last decade, evidence has emerged identifying reasons for concern about the potential negative impact of social media on children and adolescents. A longitudinal cohort study of U.S. adolescents aged 12–15 (n=6,595) that adjusted for baseline mental health status found that adolescents who spent more than three hours per day on social media faced double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes including symptoms of depression and anxiety. As of 2021, 8th and 10th graders now spend an average of 3.5 hours per day on social media. In a unique natural experiment that leveraged the staggered introduction of a social media platform across U.S. colleges, the roll-out of the platform was associated with an increase in depression (9% over baseline) and anxiety (12% over baseline) among college-aged youth (n = 359,827 observations). The study’s co-author also noted that when applied across the entirety of the U.S. college population, the introduction of the social media platform may have contributed to more than 300,000 new cases of depression. If such sizable effects occurred in college-aged youth, these findings raise serious concerns about the risk of harm from social media exposure for children and adolescents who are at a more vulnerable stage of brain development.”

Anyone who wants to take a deeper dive into the relationship between social media usage among youth and problematic outcomes will find much to ponder here. We as parents—as well as helping professionals in ministry, psychology, psychiatry, teaching and social work—would do well to ponder the implications of this report.

In that sense, I’m hopeful that Dr. Murthy’s message here isn’t just one more study, one more bit of interesting information that comes and goes. I hope that, just as happened in 1964, it can be the beginning of a sea change in how we understand the potentially harmful effects of this pervasive, influential medium of communication, especially upon children.

In 1964, almost half the adult population smoked. It was normal. It was what lots of people did, and no one thought much of it. We didn’t understand then that it was actually killing us, slowly, from the inside out.

Perhaps this, too, is a moment when we can take a step back. Perhaps we can begin to see, collectively, that this thing that has become so omnipresent, so normal, is potentially killing our kids’ souls in ways every bit as spiritually cancerous as smoking is physically. Perhaps one day in the not-so-distant future, social media will also come with its own cautionary label: “SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Social media usage has been shown to correlate with links to depression, anxiety, suicide and a lower quality of life when consumed habitually in large quantities daily.”    

Adam R. Holz

After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.

3 Responses

  1. -I can understand why some people love social media, but I can also see why people hate it as well.

  2. -I think the 2016 election was the inflection point when people in the mainstream realized that social media was ripping the seams of our social fabric. But like any addiction, it’s hard for a lot of people to imagine surviving without it — especially the generation that came of age during the pandemic.

    Weaning people of all ages, especially kids, off their excessive reliance on technology is going to require us to strengthen IRL institutions that have traditionally given people a sense of belonging.

    Media consumption patterns, eroding trust in institutions, cultural fragmentation, and political polarization are making that a lot harder. But we still have to try, and the effort has to start with us in our local communities. We can’t expect government to solve this problem by itself. We need to reach out and show kids we’re listening and we accept them. We need to give them physical space where they can interact, create, and express themselves without having to perform on social media. We need to give them mental health resources. We need to make them feel welcome, safe and loved.

  3. -Sadly, this problem is not limited to children, but adults of all ages. Some of my family members and acquaintances are older than 50, but they spend as much time on Facebook/Instagram/TikTok as the teenagers described in this blog post. I wonder how teenagers will comprehend the dangers of social media if they observe their parents and relatives using it excessively.

    I liked when cell phones just made calls, and maybe you paid for texting. A phone was a phone, computer was the computer, camera was the camera, etc. When you turned the computer off, you were done with the Internet until next time.