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Warning: Social Media May Be Hazardous to Your Child’s Health, Says the Surgeon General

Most people under the age of about 50 or so grew up in a world where smoking was a recognized public health issue. But those of us over that age remember a different world, one in which people could smoke pretty much anywhere: restaurants, airplanes (!), hospital waiting rooms (!!).

The first legislated warnings about the potential dangers of cigarette smoking began in 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. That first warning was mildly ominous but not very specific: “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health.”

As time marched on, however, and the science regarding the link between smoking and adverse health outcomes became undeniable, those warnings got stronger and more definitive—invoking the authority of the Surgeon General. In 1970, cigarette packs came with this message: “Warning: The Surgeon General Has Determined That Cigarette Smoking Is Dangerous to Your Health.” And in 1984, those messages took a quantum leap in terms of scientific specificity with the newly passed Comprehensive Smoking Education Act. Four specific warnings were issued, the most well known stating, “SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, and May Complicate Pregnancy.”

Why am I writing about this history of cigarette health warnings, you might wonder? Because there’s a parallel happening right now with social media. And we might just be at a point similar to where we were in 1965 with smoking–that being a growing consensus that there are measurable mental health problems that correlate strongly with adolescent social media usage.

In fact, this week, our current Surgeon General echoed that history with a strong call for similar warnings on social media. In an opinion piece in The New York Times, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote, “It is 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, which requires congressional action, would regularly remind parents and adolescents that social media has not been proved safe.”

Dr. Murthy specifically called for congressional legislation to “shield young people from online harassment, abuse and exploitation and from exposure to extreme violence and sexual content.” He further advocated waiting until high school before giving a child access to social media. Also worth noting, Dr. Murthy added, “These harms are not a failure of willpower and parenting; they are the consequence of unleashing powerful technology without adequate safety measures, transparency or accountability.”

Just as the cultural conversation around the health risks of smoking evolved over the course of multiple decades, we’re now seeing a similar evolution and movement regarding the potential harms of social media on young users. Rates of mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety and suicide have gone through the roof in the last decade, and many social scientists are increasingly pointing a collective finger at social media as a root cause.

Will putting a digital “warning label” on social media “scare” kids and families away from using it? Probably not, in most cases. But the Surgeon General is hopeful that such a high-profile warning becomes another important component in our culture’s engagement with social media. And just as we saw happen with public sentiment regarding smoking and its health hazards, perhaps our contemporary conversation about social media’s hazardous effects will follow a similar trajectory.

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.

4 Responses

  1. The only thing that can bring satisfaction to our souls and spirits is a relationship with Jesus Christ, not social media.

  2. Warning labels on cigarette packages didn’t do much to stop people from smoking. Not as much as laws passed in the 1990s because of the dangers of second-hand smoke. These laws started by prohibiting smoking in bars and restaurants, and eventually were expanded to virtually all public indoor structures. Those laws really made smoking rates go down, because now the only places you can legally smoke are either outdoors or in your own private residence or car.

    There are many states that have passed laws setting minimum ages for joining social media sites, as well as many nations outside the United States. But not everyone matures at the same rate. The best solution, if you ask me, is to require social media sites to collect monthly or yearly credit card payments from their users, and the name on the social media account should match the name on the credit card. And as soon as the payments stop coming in, the information on the social media account should be destroyed. That way, if someone is legally old enough to get a social media but their parents don’t want them to have one, that someone would have to wait until they were 21 to get a social media account without their parent’s assistance or approval. (You can get a credit card at 21 without parental consent, but you need parental consent to get a credit card between the ages of 18 and 20.)

  3. I don’t think the social media problem will be completely solved until something new is created, and enough people think it’s better than social media sites. The question is, what?

  4. Social media and cigarettes are two completely different animals, comparing social media’s addictiveness to smoking is not far off but social media can’t maim your lungs and give you cancer. The addiction of social media is similar to tobacco addiction but the effects of social media don’t maim the body and cause cancer like tobacco. That being said, social media IS addictive and that’s a very real problem. It’s a digital drug and kids are eating it up. I’ve found that kids with no iPad exposure have much stronger behavior and social skills than those kids who do. The iPad is instant, the real world is not. Do I think social media and smartphones should be shelved away until your child is at least 16? Absolutely, the more developed their brain is when they start the more capable they’ll be at keeping social media in moderation . It’s junk food, it will harm you if you have too much of it but in moderation and at the right age, it’s a fine treat.