Will Social Media for Youths be the Next Big Tobacco?

Health & Gender Policy Brief #162 | By: Geoffrey Small | June 13, 2023
Photo taken from: therallymagazine.com




On May 23rd, The United States Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, issued an advisory about the effects of social media on youth mental health. Dr. Murthy’s Health and Human Services Report stated that social media use is nearly “universal” for youth in the United States, with 95% of ages 13-17 using it and more than a third indicating they use it “almost constantly.” Despite the HHS advisory outlining some benefits to social media use, it also cited multiple studies that correlate harmful impacts on the mental health of adolescents. Over sixty years ago, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report documenting the causation between smoking and lung cancer. Forty years later, the federal government banned cartoon labels on cigarette packaging that targeted youth from the seventies to the late nineties. Exploring the timeline of regulating big tobacco can provide some insight into the strategies that federal and state governments may use to curb the negative impacts of social media on adolescents.


Policy Analysis

The U.S. Surgeon General advisory on social media outlines some of the factors leading to mental health issues in youth. Multiple medical studies cited in the report indicated increased depression and anxiety with prolonged exposure. Cyber-bullying is well documented in having a significant impact on mental health. Nearly half of adolescents 13-17 reported that social media made them feel worse about their body image. Adolescent girls of color were determined to be especially vulnerable, as more than one-third surveyed reported exposure to racist language and content. Studies have also indicated that social media algorithms, designed to engage users, create a change in the brain structure related to excessive exposure. These changes share similarities with individuals who face substance abuse or gambling addictions.

1956 was the first smoking advisory issued by the Surgeon General, highlighting the causal relationship between smoking and cancer. Government sponsored anti-smoking messages on television and radio soon followed, until cigarette adds were banned in 1969. States and federal agencies soon banned smoking in public places after a 1972 Surgeon General report highlighted the dangers of secondhand smoke. Big tobacco adapted by appealing to younger consumers with images of cartoons like “Joe Camel” on the packaging. However, in 1997 the Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against the Joe Camel add campaign for violating the FTC Act with “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.” The campaign was soon ended after the complaint and a billion dollar settlement, which was paid by big tobacco to states seeking medical costs of smoking-related illnesses.

The health effects related to smoking are clear. However, as stated in the Surgeon General’s recent advisory, the effects of social media on youth mental health is more complex. Research in the field is relatively new and more data needs to be collected. Will the federal government be able to target social media add campaigns that affect the mental health of adolescents? Will states be able to sue social media companies to cover the cost of mental health-related illnesses? The clearer the causation, the more likely these actions may occur. Donating to organizations like the Child Mind Institute, which contributed to the recent Surgeon General advisory, can help educate the public on youth mental health issues.


Link to Donate: https://childmind.org/give/donate/

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