Researchers Say Social Media Warning Is Too Broad

When the U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, announced on Monday that he was planning to push for a mental health warning label on social media platforms, he was met with cheers from many parents and teachers, who described a long, lonely struggle to wrench children away from a habit that was hurting them.

He got a cooler reaction, however, from some scientists who study the relationship between social media and mental health. In interviews, several researchers said the blanket warning Dr. Murthy has proposed — “social media is associated with significant mental health harms for adolescents” — stretches and oversimplifies the scientific evidence.

For many years, researchers have tried to determine whether the amount of time a child spent on social media contributed to poor mental health, and “the results have been really mixed, with probably the consensus being that no, it’s not related,” said Dr. Mitch Prinstein, the chief science officer at the American Psychological Association.

What seems to matter more, he said, is what they are doing when they are online — content about self-harm, for example, has been shown to increase self-harming behavior.

“It’s kind of like saying, ‘Is the number of calories that you eat good for you or bad for you?’” said Dr. Prinstein, who testified before the Senate on the subject last year. “It depends. Is it candy, or is it vegetables? If your child is spending all day on social media following The New York Times feed and talking about it with their friends, that’s probably fine, you know?”

Like other scientists interviewed, Dr. Prinstein applauded Dr. Murthy for drawing attention to the mental health crisis. He said he was very optimistic about policy changes that might follow, to keep social media use from interfering with school, sleep and physical activity. After Dr. Murthy’s announcement, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California called for a statewide ban on smartphone use in California schools.

“What’s happening out there, and what I think the surgeon general has tapped into so well, is that parents are feeling so incredibly helpless,” Dr. Prinstein said. “He’s giving some ammunition to everyone in this conversation to say, ‘Look — I don’t care how much my child may be upset with me, if the surgeon general says this might be harmful, I feel justified in taking away the device at 9 p.m.’”

In his essay laying out the case for a warning label, published Monday in The New York Times, Dr. Murthy leaned more heavily on anecdotes than on scientific research. He cited one 2019 study, which found that adolescents who spent more than three hours a day on social media faced double the risk of anxiety and depression symptoms.

Dr. Murthy has ready responses to his academic critics. He says children growing up now “don’t have the luxury of waiting years until we know the full extent of social media’s impact.” When challenged for evidence of social media’s harmful effects, he argues instead that “we do not have enough evidence to conclude that social media is sufficiently safe.”

“The warning label is important until we can get to the point where social media is actually safe,” he said in an interview.

In interviews, several researchers said the proposed warning was overly broad and could backfire.

“These advisories are usually reserved for products that have no safe level of use, or that cause harm when used exactly as the manufacturer intends,” said Nicholas B. Allen, the director of the Center for Digital Mental Health at the University of Oregon. “This is not an accurate description of social media. The scientific evidence simply does not support a view that social media is dangerous per se.”

Instead, he said, it is “a context where both good and bad things can happen,.”

Even before Dr. Murthy’s announcement, a number of researchers were challenging the widely accepted link between social media and the mental health crisis. That debate intensified after the March publication of “The Anxious Generation,” by Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University’s business school, which argued that the spread of social media had led to “an epidemic of mental illness.”

The book, which has spent 11 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, was panned in the journal Nature by Candice L. Odgers, a professor of psychological science in informatics at the University of California, Irvine. “Hundreds of researchers, myself included, have searched for the kind of large effects suggested by Haidt,” she wrote. “Our efforts have produced a mix of no, small and mixed associations.”

Dr. Odgers, who has been approached by so many journalists that she distributes a six-page summary of the scientific literature on the subject, has cataloged large-scale meta-analyses and reviews that have found social media use has small effects on health, among them a 2023 report by an expert committee convened by the National Academies of Sciences.

On Monday, following Dr. Murthy’s call for a warning label, Dr. Odgers said the nation’s top health official was running the risk of labeling normal adolescent behavior as “shameful, damaging and dangerous.” This could lead to conflict within families and cause young people to be shut out of spaces where they find support.

Meanwhile, she said, “the real causes of youth mental health problems go on unaddressed.”

“I understand that the government and the surgeon general want to regulate social media companies,” she said. “And they see an opening to do this here, but there is a cost, and children and families will pay for it.”

Mr. Haidt and his occasional collaborator, the psychologist Jean Twenge, maintain that there is plenty of evidence that more use of social media leads to worse mental health, and they note that young people themselves often point to social media as a major cause of distress.

Dr. Twenge, the author of “Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents — and What They Mean for America’s Future,” said that the disconnect might come down to the way research psychologists are trained to analyze statistical correlations, often dismissing them as small.

Their colleagues in public health may look at the same data and see an unacceptable risk that requires action. For them, not acting may be a more dangerous choice, she said. “What is the risk of having teens and children spend less time on social media?” she said. “If we’re wrong, the consequences of taking action are minuscule. If we’re right, the consequences of doing nothing are enormous.”

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