New York First State to Declare Social Media a Public Health Hazard

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On January 24, New York City declared social media a public health hazard and “environmental toxin.” Mayor Eric Adams made the announcement as part of his annual State of the City address. Afterward, New York City Health Commissioner Ashwin Vasan issued a Public Health Advisory with more details.

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

New York City’s History of Speaking Out Against Social Media

This is not Mayor Adams’ first comment on social media platforms and their effects on young people. In June 2023, he and Commissioner Vasan hosted a high-level summit on social media’s impact on youth with more than 150 participants, including federal government representatives, researchers, advocates, and young people.

“Unfettered access [to social media] is hurting our children—encouraging them to steal cars, ride on top of subways, spread hate, and risk their lives, all while ruining their self-worth and robbing them of crucial face-to-face interactions with their peers,” Mayor Adams said, referring to a string of popular social media challenges that occurred in 2023.

The summit, titled New York City’s Role in the National Crisis of Social Media and Youth Mental Health, resulted in several recommendations for various stakeholders, including the following for parents:

  • Learn about social media, including how it impacts youth and how to promote healthy social media use.
  • Talk openly and empathetically with children about their online experiences to better understand them.
  • Set healthy and positive social media use expectations at home.

Is Social Media a Public Health Issue?

Mayor Adams deemed social media a public health hazard based on several factors outlined in the public health advisory statement.

Mayor Adams made the statement in response to the advisory issued by Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in May 2023. The advisory identified social media as a “meaningful risk” of harm to youth, suggesting that “we cannot conclude social media is sufficiently safe for children and adolescents.”

New York City, like much of the country, is facing a mental health crisis among its youth. Nearly 40 percent of New York teens reported feeling so sad or hopeless that they stopped doing their everyday activities in the last year. Increased depression rates overlap with greater social media use, with 77 percent of New York City high schoolers spending “three or more hours per day in front of screens on an average school day, not including time spent on schoolwork,” in 2021.

Numerous professional and scholarly organizations have issued similar warnings on social media use in young people, including:

While New York City is the first jurisdiction to label social media a public health crisis, it is not the first to blame social media companies for damaging the mental health of children. Forty-one states are suing Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, alleging the company has deliberately configured the platforms to be addictive and violated privacy laws by collecting data from children under 13.

Effects of Social Media on Young People

Social media can have positive outcomes when used responsibly, which is what makes it so appealing to children and teens. With social media, you can:

  • Connect with anyone in the world regardless of their location
  • Get news and other important information in realtime
  • Communicate easily and instantly with others
  • Participate in civic engagement
  • Learn potentially life-saving information in an emergency
  • Discover and brainstorm new ideas
  • Be entertained

On the other hand, social media can be extremely harmful for any user. It is particularly dangerous for teenagers as they develop. Teenagers can experience the following harmful consequences of social media:

Much of these adverse effects occur because teenager brains are still developing. They also spend more time on social media than adults, with teens spending an average of 3.5 hours on social media each day.

Why Is Social Media Addictive?

Your brain releases dopamine, a hormone, whenever you experience something satisfying or rewarding. Evolutionarily, it motivated us to find food or shelter. It also plays a role in social connections, such as finding a mate, since these experiences were tied to evolutionary survival.

However, in modernity, developers design social media platforms to trigger dopamine release, increasing the amount of time users spend on them. For example, over time, your brain can be conditioned to release a shot of dopamine each time a post gets a like. Similarly, the same person might get another shot each time they gain a few followers.

Algorithms and unlimited scrolling capabilities ensure social media users always see something new that interests them, keeping them engaged for long periods of time. When they do finally log out, push notifications prompt them to access the social media app and repeat the process, reinforcing an addictive reward-response cycle.

Reaction From Social Media Companies

Social media companies have not been silent in the wake of Mayor Adams’ declaration. In defense, they point out helpful features they’ve added to their apps to reduce the time children spend on their platforms.

  • Meta cited over 30 tools and features it has implemented in Facebook and Instagram to keep young people safe over the last decade.
  • TikTok referenced its parental controls, age-restricted features, and a 60-minute time limit imposed on all users under 18.
  • Snapchat reiterated its primary role as a communication tool without passive scrolling, likes, or comments seen on other social media platforms.
  • YouTube identified its digital well-being features and the removal of content related to suicide and self-harm.

Implications of the Address on Social Media Companies and the Public

Mayor Adams’ declaration does not outlaw social media. Instead, it encourages caregivers, teachers, healthcare providers, and other adults to learn more about social media and its effects. The statement includes multiple resources for these adults and offers tips for protecting youths’ mental health from the dangers of social media use.

The declaration also calls for federal and state policymakers to craft legislation preventing social media companies from continuing predatory practices. It also calls on everyone, from parents and young adults to technology experts and investors, to hold social media companies accountable.

Get a Free Case Evaluation From the Social Media Victim Law Center

At the Social Media Victim Law Center, we believe social media companies should be held accountable for their actions that place children in harm’s way. Litigation and public policy efforts are the only way to stop these powerful companies from hurting our children.

If social media has harmed your child, the legal team at the Social Media Victim Law Center is standing by to help you fight back and pursue financial compensation. Contact us today for a free case evaluation. You pay nothing unless we win your case.

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