Health Care

Social media declared a ‘public health hazard,’ as efforts to rein it in ramp up

New York City Mayor Eric Adams made the announcement last week, while Florida lawmakers advanced a bill banning accounts for anyone under 16 years of age.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams holds a press availability at a news conference on Jan. 08, 2024, in New York City.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams holds a press availability at a news conference on Jan. 08, 2024, in New York City. SPENCER PLATT/GETTY IMAGES

In his State of the City address last week, New York City Mayor Eric Adams declared social media a public health hazard, making it the first major municipality to do so. 

The declaration comes as rates of hopelessness among New York City high schoolers jumped by over 42% between 2011 and 2021, and rates of suicidal ideation increased by more than 34% over the same period.

“Companies like TikTok, YouTube and Facebook are fueling a mental health crisis by designing their platforms with addictive and dangerous features,” Adams said in his speech. “We cannot stand by and let Big Tech monetize our children’s privacy and jeopardize their mental health.”

Following Adams’ announcement, Dr. Ashwin Vasan, the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene commissioner, issued an advisory that offers guidance for parents, caregivers, health care providers, educators and nonprofits to help young people navigate the platforms and be less exposed to negative impacts.

One of Vasan's more notable suggestions is that parents and guardians should not give children a smartphone or other device that could access social media until they are at least 14 years old, and then "reassess based on the current evidence of harms and the child's strengths and needs." The declaration says there is “no safe age” yet established for children to use smartphones or social media.

Similar public health hazard declarations have been issued in the past by U.S. surgeons general on tobacco and firearms. Governors, lawmakers, mayors and federal officials have all lamented the effects of social media on young people, and Adams’ declaration joins a host of other efforts by state and local governments to address the possible risks of social media.

“Just as the surgeon general did with tobacco and guns, we are treating social media like other public health hazards and ensuring that tech companies take responsibility for their products,” Adams said. While the declaration does not direct city resources toward the issue, he pledged New Yorkers will be “hearing more about this soon.”

Among Vasan’s suggestions are that adults implement “tech-free times” that allow for more in-person connection, discuss social media in an “open-minded way” with children, model healthy social media use themselves and create what Vasan called a “Family Media Plan” to determine use and set goals to promote good mental health.

Vasan also urged young adults to develop “healthy habits” around social media use themselves, including sharing concerns about the platforms or their mental health with adults and limiting use to set time frames.

Young people should monitor their emotions while using social media, Vasan said, and plan to focus on activities that bring “positive emotions.” He suggested kids could promote those positive feelings by turning off notifications, increasing privacy settings or following accounts that “bring feelings of joy, hope and connection.”

Finally, Vasan said technologists and others that interact with social media companies should advocate for safe design of the platforms. He called on policymakers to wield their legislative authority to protect children on social media.

Many of those efforts are being challenged in the courts. But that hasn’t deterred many states.  

Just last week, the Florida House of Representatives voted to advance a bill that would ban anyone under the age of 16 from using social media, even amid lawmakers’ concerns about enforcement, free speech and parental rights. The bill passed with bipartisan support and now will be discussed in the Senate. Under the current draft bill, it would take effect on July 1.

“We must address the harmful effects social media platforms have on the development and well-being of our kids,” House Speaker Paul Renner, a Republican, said in a statement. “Florida has a compelling state interest and duty to protect our children, their mental health and their childhood.”

The bill not only requires the use of “reasonable age verification methods” to determine a user’s age, it also mandates that any existing account held by a minor under 16 be terminated either at the request of the user or their parents. The bill also provides a 90-day period for a user to dispute a termination by verifying their age.

Social media platforms would be required to include resources for law enforcement, information on suicide prevention, domestic violence prevention services and reporting mechanisms for harmful behaviors.

Lawmakers also want the platforms to add a disclaimer that states that the application “may be harmful to your mental health and may use design features that have addictive qualities or present unverified information or that may be manipulated by [insert platform name] or others for your viewing.”

In a post on X, Zach Lilly, deputy director of state and federal affairs for open internet advocacy group NetChoice called the legislation “cartoonishly authoritarian” and said it certainly violates Floridians’ First Amendment rights. Gov. Ron DeSantis has expressed some misgivings about the bill as well, warning of “legal issues.”

But others are adamant that such intervention is necessary.

“In the state of Florida, we’re saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ We will not allow social media companies to build a business on the backs of our children,” Representative Michele Rayner, a Democrat, said in a statement released by Renner’s office. “Protecting kids is not a partisan issue.”