Social media critics have long decried the medium for applying algorithms to manipulate sometimes vulnerable populations into viewing potentially harmful content.

Critics also note that the apps encourage overuse to the point of near-addiction, particularly in its most engaged targets: adolescents. Research uncovered the connection between anxiety and depression in adolescents to social media use. A JAMA Network survey of 6,595 US adolescents found that using it for just 30 minutes led to an increase in internalising problems.

The longer the session, the higher the rate of anxiety and depression. The study indicated that teenagers who spend three or more hours daily on social media are at high risk of gaining mental health issues.

Social media and mental health problems

Citing these and other research as proof points that social media consumption can lead to mental health problems in children and teenagers, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy called for a warning label for social media. In an opinion piece published in the New York Times, Murthy acknowledged that a warning label will not cure the underlying issues.

However, comparing labels on social media to the tobacco packaging warnings first required in 1966 that eventually helped lead to a dramatic decrease in smoking rates, Murthy said could be an important tool to educate the public. Murthy also called for Congress to do more through legislation to protect children from digital harassment and abuse.

The inevitable push back

Not everyone has reached the same conclusion about the dangers as Murthy and the research he cites. Critics raised concerns about interference in free speech and noted the need to take personal responsibility for using any medium.

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Critics of Murthy’s call for a warning label and more government intervention also raised concerns about regulatory overreach. Some dismissed a warning label as little more than a useless box-checking device. Nor are all social sites programmed the same way, with some encouraging healthy discourse and supportive communities.

Whatever your opinion, one thing is abundantly clear: Virtually all adolescents use social media and they are consuming a lot of it. A 2023 Pew Research study of its use among teens found that 93% of all teens use social media. In the survey of 1,453 adolescents between the ages of 13 and 17, nearly half said they used it “almost constantly.”