Surgeon General’s Warning – Social Media is Hazardous to Mental Health

Surgeon General's warning with a group of teens on phones

The Surgeon General’s warning will remind parents that social media has not been proven safe.

In a recent New York Times Guest Essay, United States Surgeon General Vivek K. Murthey announced he would call for a warning label on social media platforms. The goal is to increase awareness that social media has yet been proven to be safe. A surgeon general’s warning label is similar to those on alcohol and tobacco products and would advise parents and adolescents that social media can be hazardous to mental health. Dr. Murthey’s proposal comes after several years of warnings to parents, tech companies, and Congress. Warning labels are a tool that is available to the surgeon general but require Congressional approval.


Surgeon General’s Warning – Social Media Hazardous to Mental Health

Dr. Murthey sites several reasons for a quick response to the mental health crisis among young people:

  • Social media is an important contributor to the mental health crisis.
  • Adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media have double the risk of anxiety and depression.
  • Half of adolescents say social media makes them feel worse about their body image.
  • Warning labels increase awareness and shape behavior.
  • Warning labels will work in conjunction with recommendations he has made to policymakers and the general public.
    • Congress should shield people from online “harassment, abuse, and exploitation; and from exposure to extreme violence and sexual content.”
    • Legislation should stop tech platforms from collecting data on children and restrict algorithms that impact developing brains and encourage excessive use.
    • Tech companies must share data on the health impact of social media and allow safety audits with independent scientists and the public.
    • Schools should have phone-free classroom and social time.
    • There are no “seat belts” for social media; parents must work together to establish shared rules on social media usage in their communities.
  • Social media has not been properly tested and approved by experts.


“The moral test of any society is how well it protects its children … We have the expertise, resources and tools to make social media safe for our kids. Now is the time to summon the will to act. Our children’s well-being is at stake.” Vivek K. Murthey, United States Surgeon General


surgeon general's warning virtual treatment for mental health


Sanford Behavioral Health Responds

We sat down with Sanford Behavioral Health Clinical Manager Jennifer Barajas, MS, LPC, and Clinical Director Wade Stitt, MAC, MS, LPC, to get their reaction to the surgeon general’s announcement. It seems they do not have to be convinced that parents, tech companies, and Congress have a responsibility to regulate social media use. Both Jennifer and Wade see the negative effects of social media use on a daily basis.


SBH – Do you agree with Dr. Murthey’s warning?

Wade Stitt – Yes. During the pandemic, with the shut down, we saw social media use and abuse skyrocket. I do not think it has gotten any better in 2024. COVID created some unhealthy habits in our adolescents (and adults) that play a large part in eating disorders, depression, and anxiety.

Jennifer Barajas – The constant exposure to these idealized images and lifestyles creates feelings in our children that they’re inadequate. It contributes significantly to their low self-esteem. They’re constantly looking at unrealistic and unattainable bodies. The reality is that many influencers have had surgeries or they use camera angles, lighting and makeup to enhance themselves. Most of us don’t have 3 hours to spend on hair and makeup before we get on social media to post pictures. And so it creates this inadequate feeling, which contributes to and reaffirms the negative core belief that compared to others we come up short.


“Anxiety, depression and body dysmorphia increase significantly when you are comparing yourself to somebody who has an unrealistic or unattainable body. And eating disorders flourish in that environment.” Jennifer Barajas, MS, LPC


Wade Stitt – And not just that. Adolescents are posting images of themselves and there are folks in the online world, that are trolling them and making negative comments about their bodies. That adds to anxiety and depression. Social media thrives on negativity, so the negative comments are compounded for the world to see.

Jennifer Barajas – People use social media to stay connected to others, but it really has a reverse effect. There is isolation in the virtual world because they are not actually having real face-to-face conversations. Kids believe that these “friends” that they make online are real friends. The fact is they may not even be who they say that they are or what they are portraying. Consequently, this sets them up for sex trafficking, and cyber bullying. It also significantly impairs their social skills. Kids don’t know how to make a phone call anymore. They are afraid of in-person confrontation or connection.


SBH – Do we address social media use at Sanford Behavioral Health?

Jennifer Barajas – Absolutely, especially in the eating disorder community. We have a process group where the only focus is social media.  Together, we talk about deleting the influencers that are portraying negative body image and adding those that are supporting positive body image. We also go through phones with our clients and help them get rid of their “sick enough pictures” and detach from social media. Sick enough are the photos that clients have identified as portraying the sick image of themselves they may still be comparing themselves to. We just want them to focus on their healthy self and what their healthy body looks like. Many of our clients report that when they take a break from social media their self-esteem increases.

Thank you!


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Sanford Behavioral Health is licensed and accredited as an addiction, eating disorder, and co-occurring mental health treatment facility, serving all of Michigan and beyond. Each of Sanford’s facilities in Greater Grand Rapids is carefully and diligently crafted to create a welcoming and comforting environment. Sanford is led by a psychiatrist-led team of medical, clinical, and support personnel providing medication-assisted, evidenced-based treatment to residential, outpatient, and telehealth patients. For more information, visit