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Gen Z doesn’t need social media health warnings

US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy during a Senate hearing last year on the youth mental health crisis. Credit: Getty

June 18, 2024 - 1:00pm

“I want to live in the real world, but I can’t afford to.” This is a text message I received from a Generation Z friend a couple of days ago. It’s emblematic of the desperation — and isolation — that many young people are feeling today.

It also underscores the complex nature of Gen Z’s relationship with the internet and the ongoing youth mental health crisis which some social critics believe is downstream of young people’s relationship with technology. But Gen Z’s mental health is an issue that cannot and should not be reduced to superficial explanations about screen time, narcissism, or social media addiction. As my Zoomer friend suggests: social media has something to do with it, but not everything.

Even Surgeon General Vivek Murthy seems to have jumped on the “social media is making teens depressed” bandwagon. In a New York Times op-ed yesterday, Murthy called on Congress to slap warning labels on social media like those on cigarette packs. Move over, Tipper Gore.

The conversation surrounding social media today is eerily reminiscent of previous moral panics. It’s Reefer Madness; it’s the Reagan-era crusade against explicit music; it’s the frenzied condemnation of metal, hip-hop, and violent video games. In each case, the alleged harm caused by these cultural phenomena was misunderstood by overzealous, out-of-touch adults, and the restrictions they enacted proved largely ineffective. “Parental Advisory” stickers, intended to deter young listeners, instead became a badge of coolness, ultimately boosting the sales of labelled albums.

Similarly, despite decades of hand-wringing, the introduction of the ESRB rating system, and the systematic neutering of video game storylines, no credible evidence has emerged to link video game violence to real-world aggression.

It’s not clear that social media causes real-world despair, either. As it turns out, the evidence that “the apps”, “the algorithm”, and “the internet” are causing mental health problems in young people isn’t as overwhelming as some claim.

An ad hoc committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that the current research does not support the conclusion that social media causes changes in adolescent health at the population level. The effects are likely a constantly shifting mix of risks and benefits that affect people differently. Some surveys show that kids report more positive experiences with social media than negative ones.

The idea that there is a mental health crisis among teens and young adults isn’t unfounded. But by flattening the conversation and reducing it to an issue solely caused by social media, we risk obfuscating other factors.

Dr Craig Sewall, a Clinical Data Scientist, suggests that changes in diagnostic criteria and screening practices can drastically shift prevalence rates of mental health conditions absent any “real” change in occurrence. Thus, this uptick in anxiety and depression diagnoses might reflect increased awareness and shifting diagnostic thresholds. Other environmental actors may also be at play — such as, in the case of my friend, economic precarity.

Dr Sewall makes another critical point about treating social media as a bogeyman, particularly with respect to policy. Social media as a category remains a slippery, ever-evolving concept. It’s ambiguous as to what even constitutes social media.

To contextualise just how unclear these boundaries are, consider the following. Is UnHerd, with its active comments section, “social media”? Would these warnings apply to Slack? School-run discussion boards? Pornhub? Do we “know it when we see it”?

This line of thinking raises other concerns, too. However well-intentioned, we should always be vigilant about discourse that may invite overreach cloaked in the guise of “protecting the vulnerable”. The bipartisan push to gut Section 230, for example, imperils online free speech. In one sense, this conversation is about “protecting kids”. But that’s not always where these discussions stop, nor is that where the impact of potential policies stop.

While social media poses real risks, including to young people’s mental health, today’s youth deserve better than warning labels on Snapchat. The kids may not not alright, but the Surgeon General’s warnings won’t save them.


Katherine Dee is a writer. To read more of her work, visit defaultfriend.substack.com.

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Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago

Alongside immersion in social media, the corollary is lack of immersion for young people in age-old activities such as socialising with friends – including “being present” when with them – and being out in nature.
Even if the effects of social media content were being exaggerated as an instigator of mental health issues, the time spent on social media which would otherwise have been spent elsewhere, or simply experiencing boredom with a positive reaction to get up and ‘do something’ will have its effects too.
Any serious study, or article, should take this into account.

Dave Canuck
Dave Canuck
1 month ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

It’s not just social media, it’s all the games, video streaming , and everything else they do online, they have no time ro get out and mix with friends and do activities. The parks are almost empty of kids, and the don’t get enough sleep, brains always on hyper speed, no wonder they’re anxious.

David Morley
David Morley
1 month ago

It’s Reefer Madness; it’s the Reagan-era crusade against explicit music

And pornography of course, that old perennial. Remember all the fuss about girlie mags way back when they were scarcely more explicit than some instagram posts are now – and lads mags, relegated to the top shelf.

David Morley
David Morley
1 month ago

A good reminder of our odd propensity for moral panic – and our gullibility when it is leveraged by politicians.

i have to confess that I’ve swallowed the social media one rather uncritically, though I’m still inclined to think there are many negatives short of creating a mental health crisis.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
1 month ago

It’s interesting how believable these things can often become. I suppose it reflects that stories mean more than data.

Undoubtedly there are some grim stories about some individuals’ addiction to porn but the empirical evidence doesn’t have convincing evidence that, on average, poor harms those watch it.

The grim stories matter more.

David Morley
David Morley
1 month ago

That plus a whole lot of cognitive biases. And a failure to think statistically and to distinguish between how bad something is and how common it is, and to draw general conclusions from isolated events.

jane baker
jane baker
1 month ago

My tablet wont even let me see the price of cigarettes in France so fat chance me accessing any porn,if I wanted to. I know it’s due to the settings my sister set it up with and I don’t know how to change it if I wanted to but I don’t. But people go on about how easy it is to see porn online and how it just pops up unbidden in your YouTube feed but thats not true. It’s NOT easy to “just stumble across porn” by accident.
First you have to search and then you have to pay. There is a paywall.
Yes,I get that teenage boys,vile creatures that they are probably do actively search and might even pay,with their pocket money? In which case they’re not innocent victims at all.

Dave Canuck
Dave Canuck
1 month ago
Reply to  jane baker

There is so much free and accessible porn out there, you have to be naive.

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
1 month ago

It’s Reefer Madness

The film Reefer Madness is undoubtedly schlocky melodrama produced by religious zealots, which was no more likely to dissuade kids in 1938 from trying smoke than it is now. But let’s be fair, in broad terms the stuff that happens in the film can and does happen in real life.
+ People driving stoned causing fatal car accidents? Happens.
+ Girls getting sexually assaulted while out of it? Also happens.
+ Drug dealers fighting among themselves and causing the deaths of innocent bystanders? That happens too.
+ Cannabis users becoming paranoid and withdrawn, leading in extreme cases to hospitalisation? Anyone who has been around drug scenes for any lengths of time has seen that happening.
+ Suicide following heavy, prolonged cannabis use? Yep. There’s proper research which has found a positive correlation between heavy cannabis use and increased suicidal ideation.
Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t think the kind of moral panic which inspired Reefer Madness is much use in combating drug problems and I understand all the arguments about other legal substances, like alcohol, being as bad etc etc.
But if you were to bring the makers of Reefer Madness forward in time and show them modern San Francisco, they would take one look and say “We told you this is where things would end up if you didn’t listen.” And I’m not sure it would be that easy to argue the point with them.

David Morley
David Morley
1 month ago

And I’m not sure it would be that easy to argue the point with them.

Sure, but that would go for almost any doomsayer. Kellog et al would see the disastrous results of masturbation everywhere.

That said, I do myself sometimes think that if you asked the worst kind of stuffy old fart of years ago what the results of permissive parenting, decolonisation, feminism etc would be, he would be a lot closer to the truth than the idealists of his time. I think there is a reason for that too – the old fart does not expect human nature as he sees it around him to change. The idealists do.

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
1 month ago
Reply to  David Morley

“Sure, but that would go for almost any doomsayer. Kellog et al would see the disastrous results of masturbation everywhere.”

It would be much harder to argue that there is a link or even association between excessive masturbation and the drug-addled mess which cities like San Francisco and Portland have become.

Unless you are referring to the circle-jerk of progressive onanism which passes for policy making in those places.

Alan B
Alan B
1 month ago
Reply to  David Morley

False dichotomy: in fact both prohibitionism, and languishing stoned all day, are against human nature.

jane baker
jane baker
1 month ago

OMG. Where do you live? Ha ha ha.

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
1 month ago
Reply to  jane baker

“OMG. Where do you live? Ha ha ha.”

I can’t see the relevance of your question, I’m afraid.

Perhaps if you disagree with any of my points you would like to explain why?

Martin M
Martin M
1 month ago

You think modern San Francisco is a product of the fact that a few people smoked a bit of weed?

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
1 month ago
Reply to  Martin M

I think his point was that it’s not the ‘few people’ but the social acceptance of ‘bad behaviour’ that does the damage. Which is of course 100% true, as long as we all accept the same definition of ‘bad’….

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
1 month ago
Reply to  Martin M

“You think modern San Francisco is a product of the fact that a few people smoked a bit of weed?”

No, I clearly haven’t said that.

What’s more I’ve been explicit that I think Reefer Madness is melodramatic schlock which is of little practical use in dealing with the problems caused by drugs in society.

What I’ve pointed out is that for all we may mock the moral panic of Reefer Madness, the reality is that the bad stuff that happens in it actually does happen quite a lot. Of course it doesn’t all happen to the same small group of people in the space of a few days, but they didn’t have the budget for a 10 part mini-series with a large ensemble cast.

And just in case you imagine I’m some sort of one-man temperance league. I smoked regularly from my teens to my late 20s. I gave up because I got bored with that unique combination of tedium and paranoia which increasingly characterises being stoned as you get older.

On a personal level I really don’t mind if people smoke weed anymore than I mind them drinking alcohol. Let’s just not pretend that it is cost-free.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
1 month ago

May be worth pointing out that the effects of Social media on teen mental health has been carefully investigated for over 12 years now. Far from being out-of-touch, folk like Jean Twenge noticed a “sudden increases in teens saying they felt useless, hopeless, or that they couldn’t do anything right, which are classic symptoms of depression” from as early as 2012. A few years later the data was in to confirm that after being largely flat since the mid 1990s, depression and various other mental health conditions had started to rise sharply from 2012. There were no changes to diagnostic criteria that can explain this. Additionally, data from parts of the world where the smartphone didn’t become widespread until much later than 2012, indicates the main change that immediately precedes the sharp rise in young peoples MH conditions, is the introduction of high speed internet coverage.
Twenge & Haidt have been prominently warning about the growing youth mental health crisis since 2017. All conceivable alternative causes other than internet have been carefully investigated. And while not totally dismissed, found far less significant. Admitedly there’s a few hundred accademics making contrarian arguments, but none are convincing to someone who’s looked at all the evidence. Kat Dee is a great unheard contributor and well respected internet historian. But rather out of her depth trying to rebut folk like Haidt, Jean Twenge and vice Admiral Murthy.  Folk are working on the optimal solution on many levels. For parents, a light touch may be best. Even Haidt concedes it can be harmful to take smartphones from individual children, as unless this is also done with all their peers, it can effectively cut them out of social life. At a local level, parents & schools etc can collaborate for a general ban, as has happened for example in St Albans, Greystones etc. All this said, policy makers are well aware SM brings huge benefits a large section of the population, and even for some young people. So quite possible US & UK won’t press ahead with nationwide bans as has been done elsewhere.

jane baker
jane baker
1 month ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

Teens are despondent,if they are,because for all their life theyve been told they’ve got to personally save the bloody planet. Which is a lot to put on the shoulders of anybody. They’ve been told that the world is going to end in fire and flood quite soon and it’s all Grown Ups fault but the problem is,you get to be a Grown Up and some mean bastards want to make you an adult and thus culpable at 16.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
1 month ago
Reply to  jane baker

True. But that doesnt explain the sharp uptrend in Teen MH conditions that began in 2012. Google analytics shows a sharp uptick in searches for Climate Crises terms back in 2006. (After Al Gore released his Inconvienient Truth) But that caused no sizeable MH uptick. By late 2007 the climate searches had dropped down, & didnt pickup agatin strongly until 2018 when good Greta Thurnberg brust on the scene. That said, that is massive data showing climate crisis is contributing significantly to young people’s anxiety – just not so much to clinical MH conditions.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 month ago

Social media itself isn’t the problem; it’s easy access to smartphones in general. When you give a child unsupervised time on the internet you are allowing them to view all manner of sexual acts as well as giving free rein to those who want to expand their influence through the young and the gullible.
When I was teaching high school, it was actually the very smart parents who refused to buy their children a smart phone. The difference in maturity, creativity, and learning ability between children who owned a phone and those who didn’t was astounding. Moreover, when schools permit children to bring phones to school, teachers and children are at risk of being secretly recorded thus creating a tension that wasn’t there before.

George K
George K
1 month ago

I’ve noticed recently a moral panic about school shootings. Indeed, let’s look at the numbers. How many children died as the result of school shootings compared to drug use, suicide, traffic accidents etc.? Is there any reliable data proving clear connection between school shootings and kids being shot? None. Correlation is not causation. To be truly scientific we would need to compare the number of kids being shot dead to the number of same kids staying alive if they survived the shooting. How do we know they wouldn’t have died anyway?
(being sarcastic, just in case)

Point of Information
Point of Information
1 month ago

Glad to see UnHerd writers are now taking direction from the comments section. Here’s one:

In framing the discussion as a question of freedom for kids you have to ask if they have the freedom not to have a smartphone as well as to have one, and therefore to opt out, if they or their parents choose, from cyberbulling, extortion, and the attention economy and to opt in to maintaining their privacy. For teens and pre-teens in the UK the answer is increasingly “no”.

Secondary schools, even highly-rated state schools and private schools, instruct pupils to use their phones in maths and science quizzes, so kids who don’t have phones are told to share with those who do. Primary schools require kids from the age of 5 to do their homework, including learning to read, on phone apps, which require parents to sign up to lengthy “privacy” policies on behalf of children who can’t even read let alone give informed consent. Ofsted asks schools for evidence on enriching activities, which schools provide evidence of using Twitter/X, so pupils whose parents don’t give permission for their images to be online are asked stand aside or not take part.

There is already a huge divide between kids who have smartphones in school and those who don’t, with those who don’t gaining pariah status and being subject to bullying precisely because they don’t have a phone (a child from a family I have spoken to experienced this bullying to the point of crisis). The contrarian argument in favour of giving kids smartphones everywhere, all the time, is an argument to preserve the status quo.

jane baker
jane baker
1 month ago

I’m old enough to know that rock and roll music got the blame in the 1950s,then tv right from the start was seen as rinsing our brains,but everyone of all ages. By the way in the 1960s,70s,80s even 90s declaring that you didn’t own a TV set and never watched tv was a mark of being “posh”. Really posh people on “intellectual” TV shows would say it. I never believed them as they always seemed to know all the minutia of every subject. And it was odd that the people who never watched tv mostly were the people who were ON it. But now not owning a tv and not watching TV means you’re a chav in a council house,you’re lying ,and you hate the BBC. I never watch TV live AND I hate the BBC. But to continue,every new development in entertainment/communication was portrayed back to us as damaging and shallow. The idea that we were all happy as sandboys until the Internet came along is erroneous.

Dave Canuck
Dave Canuck
1 month ago
Reply to  jane baker

I remember reading a book called 4 arguments for the elimination of television, it was very convincing, but of course it never happened, I never thought it would

william langdale
william langdale
1 month ago

At some point,people defending social media use by kids are going to start sounding like people in the 1970’s saying smoking doesn’t give you lung cancer.How long can you stand next to a ten foot high pile of dog poo and still not figure out where the smell is coming from.By the way,never owned a smart phone and hopefully never will.

Dave Canuck
Dave Canuck
1 month ago

I guess you don’t know what you are missing, they are incredibly useful and convenient

william langdale
william langdale
1 month ago
Reply to  Dave Canuck

You don’t miss what you never had.

Dylan Blackhurst
Dylan Blackhurst
1 month ago

I find Gen Z odd.
The total lack of self awareness is baffling.
The sense of entitlement infuriating.

“Old people have it all!”

Trust me Gen Z, you wouldn’t want to have worked at the level my parents did. The hours. The personal sacrifice. They got one holiday in a year (for context my daughter must have had at least 4).

Philip Hanna
Philip Hanna
1 month ago

I’m not sure that I find either of those things baffling or infuriating. Those descriptions are pretty par for the course for youth who have been brought up since, say, the 70’s. When I was a kid in the 90’s, I would regularly look at older folks and wish I had what they had. And, now that I am 41 and I have put in the work to get there, I look back at my younger self and sort of roll my eyes at some of the things that I used to believe.
Being raised on the internet is the biggest cultural shift that we have had in a long time. It is going to take some adjusting to get used to. The pendulum will swing back and forth over time, and eventually settle somewhere in the middle.
In the meantime, it’s too bad that in an era where good strong parenting is probably more necessary than ever, parents are less available due to both parents oftentimes working full-time jobs, or other issues like divorce.

Carissa Pavlica
Carissa Pavlica
1 month ago

You’re wrong. The algorithms on social media are evil for people of any age and can be lethal for kids. Slowing your scroll over one anorexia influencer will bring all the others up to the water level. That’s how the algorithms work across all social media. Read this story today on X and your for you section will change. Manipulation of any kind is disgusting but doing it to kids is worse. You may have grown up ok, but technology changes all the time. You should know better.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
1 month ago

The authors advice to do nothing until we find The Silver Bullet is completely typical of the decadence of our age. (Vivek’s silly warning is just another version of doing nothing.) In fact the lack of forward movement is the reason that we’re all at each other’s throats.
I look at it from the other side; the harms done by restricting smart phone usage (other than to the profits of some of the most profitable corporation ever) are minimal and correctable. Simply dismissing the evidence that Haidt, Twenge et al have developed is not helpful.
And the same is certainly true of Section 230. Giving massive corporations impunity to publish whatever they want just is not a very good idea, is it? I don’t see the up-side. And they censored whatever they wanted to in re: climate, sex and public health despite their “respect” for my free-speech rights.

lisa gillis
lisa gillis
1 month ago

Hi ,does any one here ever get out of here and volunteer or join protests etc to effect change or does this group just simply try to impress each other with their admirable use of the English language ? Sitting around talking about all the he crap and injustice is so easy to do …..

Jan Brogan
Jan Brogan
1 month ago

You need to look at the data from researcher Jeanne Twenge, it’s pretty compelling. https://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=Jeanne+Twenge+data+of+social+media&hl=en&as_sdt=0&as_vis=1&oi=scholart
The internet is a sewer pipe going right into those thirteen year old brains. Frankly, I don’t think a “warnng” goes far enough. I think smartphones should be like cigarettes and alcohol. You can’t own one unless you are at least 18.

Matthew Jones
Matthew Jones
1 month ago

This is weak. If the evidence isn’t compelling, tell us about it. The author makes no attempt to review and summarise the literature, which by the way, IS compelling.