Illustration of person bothered by social media logos.

The Case for Increased Regulation of Social Media

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

The social determinants of health are the underlying factors that influence our health outside of the doctor’s office, including the environments in which we work, live, and play. And the science is well-documented — when it comes to long-term health, an individual’s zip code is more important than the code in their DNA

Thus, an individual’s lived environment stands at perhaps the most crucial intersection of the social determinants that shape our lives, begging the question: what is to be done when this lived environment is no longer solely physical? 

As we move into an era of unprecedented technological advancement, our “virtual environment” will play a larger role in controlling our health. This is especially true for young adults, where evidence is mounting that there are serious mental and physical health problems that can result from social media use. 

Just as our government regulates the effect of harmful substances in our environments, a more active role must be taken in the “virtual determinants of health” of our youngest and most vulnerable generation.

In April 2023, the Pew Research Center published an overview of their key findings from surveys on the use of social media among teens. The researchers found that not only had 95% of all teens reported that they use social media, but also that 54% of them reported that social media would be hard for them to give up

Even for teenagers who meet the current social media age restrictions (over 13 years old), our nation’s leading health official has serious reservations. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has already expressed that 13 years old is too soon for social media use, citing that it creates a “distorted” version of the ever-so-important lived environment. 

Concerning physical effects, Murphy stated that when teens use social media in excess, they end up eliminating sleep, a choice that, according to the NIH, costs them the development of their brains

In addition, pressure to participate in the newest trends on Instagram or TikTok can drive teens to put themselves in potentially life-threatening situations. Who can forget when the “Tide Pod Challenge” swept the internet in 2018…and subsequently sent more teenagers to hospital toxicology wings than the previous two years combined. 

While research institutions like Pew only report on teens aged 13 to 17, these figures become even more concerning in light of the October lawsuit filed in which 33 states accused Meta (the parent company of Instagram and Facebook) of failing to disable the accounts of over a million users under the age of 13. The lawsuit alleges that, in addition to systematically ignoring reports of underage users, Meta made a concerted effort to get teens addicted to the platforms

The reality that harmful social media use will likely affect not only teenagers, but also millions of far younger children, is especially frightening with the ever-growing body of research supporting the fact that social media leads to unhealthy lifestyle habits, popularizes dangerous health trends, and seriously damages emotional well-being.

When it comes to social media, no effect is more pronounced than that of mental health. Although the age of social media is still in its infancy, a review of numerous studies is beginning to show an association between social media and anxiety, depression, and stress in adolescents. 

Acknowledging this association early is important, as patterns in social media use that vary across racial and gender identities have implications for larger disparities in health. For instance, Pew found that nearly 20% more Black teens reported use of TikTok than their White counterparts. 

Should social media have a detrimental impact on the future mental health of these Black teens it may be significantly harder for them to seek care — data from the U.S. Census indicates that Black Americans are almost twice as likely to be uninsured as non-Hispanic Whites. 

By not addressing the effect of social media on mental health now, the American health system will force a greater burden on itself to address mental health problems later, especially in our nation’s most vulnerable communities. 

Even though the harms of social media seem like an unstoppable force, there are concrete things to be done. On the issue of underage users, social media companies should be held legally and financially accountable when lax procedures let accounts slip through the cracks. Additionally, parents should push for legislation that gives them a larger role in their children’s “virtual environment.” 

On this front, there is more good news — more than 80% of American adults would support a parental consent requirement when a minor wants to create a social media account. This vast majority demonstrates that support for regulation spans the partisan gap, a rarity in today’s polarized world.

In the Senate, the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act, authored by two Democrats and two Republicans, represents the start of bipartisan efforts to get a handle on harmful social media usage. 

In a country that is still reeling from the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as an ongoing loneliness epidemic and mental health crisis, our young people need help now more than ever. Like the pandemic, many of their social determinants of health are out of the control of their parents, but not all. 

When it comes to determinants in a teenager’s “virtual environment,” parents should demand social responsibility from big social media companies and action from lawmakers to step up for the health of their communities when those companies fail to do so.