Social Media Can Be as Addictive and Harmful as Tobacco – Maybe It Should Be Similarly Regulated

  • June 19, 2024
  • Max Sun

There is a great body of research showing that unregulated social media use creates widespread mental health problems, which has only gotten worse since the COVID-19 pandemic forced people to spend more and more time indoors. Studies show that average usage of social media increased among young children and adolescents during the pandemic, in which online browsing became a necessary alternative for those unable to perform their typical outdoor physical activities. This increased risk of exposure to digital media addictions, in turn, correlates with higher rates of anxiety and depressive behaviour.[1]

The long-term effects of social media go beyond harmless bouts of anger and sadness – the activity has lasting impact on users’ brain functions and health, which is especially problematic for children whose brains are still developing. Negative impacts include decreased attention span and a need for constant stimulation, while the most harmful consequences include body dysmorphia and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.[2] Beyond health effects, social media also gives a voice to extreme, unfounded political positions, though that goes outside the scope of this article.

I would compare the current dilemma around social media to regulations on tobacco products throughout the years. Tobacco products, much like social media, cause various negative health effects with a widespread societal impact. Tobacco regulations include mandating that labels on the products include warnings on their negative health impacts and statistics on how people have been harmed. The most recent measure is the Tobacco Products Appearance, Packaging and Labelling Regulations (TPAPLR) in 2023, which states “all tobacco product packages must display a health warning, including information on the quit line and available tobacco cessation web portal services”. [3] In a first, this requires warnings to go directly on the cigarettes themselves. The stated purpose of these regulations is for “providing consumers with information about the deadly nature of these products”[4], and the evidence shows that these warnings have deterred youths from smoking and consequently lowered the rates of the associated negative health effects.[5]

Now, tobacco products and social media are ultimately different goods that cannot be regulated in the exact same way. However, I believe tobacco regulations provide an adequate template for how we might moderate social media and mitigate its harmful mental health impacts, especially on younger users. Social media’s adverse effects may not be so obvious as cancer or physical deformities, but the harm it does to youths is no more ignorable just for being psychological in nature.

As it currently stands, various social media regulations already exist, with varying degrees of effectiveness. One widely practiced method is a strict age limit on social media sites, with users needing to be at least 13 (or a comparable age, depending on the site) when registering. While this approach shows tech companies’ willingness to engage with the problem, it is minimally effective when users can lie about their age without consequences – indeed, about 40% of kids between 8 and 12 are already using social media sites.[6]

My proposal advocates for a different approach. If we accept that people will inevitably find their way onto social media sites, we can ensure they are better informed about what they sign up for. I suggest a new law, tentatively called the Social Media Registration Displays Act (SMRD), which would mandate social media companies to include detailed and comprehensive information on the mental health risks of utilizing their services in the registration process. Such warnings would better educate users on how social media can adversely affect their well-being, and what resources they can consult to mitigate the damage, overall leaving them better equipped to engage in online communities without being unprepared for potentially negative consequences.

Under the SMRD, social media sites would be required to include, on their registration page, relevant information on social media’s negative mental health impacts. Whenever a new user prepares to make an account, after one has accepted the terms and conditions, another pop-up will appear containing the data. This prevents it from being missed or merely scrolled past – the new user must engage to some extent before they can begin using the site. This proposed “warning display” will eschew walls of text in favour of the core statistics (like how around 1 in 8 users will report feeling anxious or depressed[7]), displayed in large, bold font and accompanied by relevant visuals such as graphs and brain scans. Also included will be recommendations for websites and hotlines that help with mental health problems, to offset negative effects of using social media. In addition to the initial sign-up, these warning messages could also be displayed when the user downloads a new update. Repeatedly showing the warning will hopefully prevent the information from being ignored or forgotten by users.

Much like how tobacco regulations seek to reduce its use by informing would-be users of the risks, social media regulation will be best achieved if people know – clearly and unambiguously – what they agree to when they click “Create Account.” The current social media pandemic might not kill people en masse like tobacco, but it could severely impede the next generation’s mental and social capabilities if left unchecked. Providing unavoidable warning information will not only help teenage social media users make more informed decisions, but it will also benefit parents who allow their very young children to browse the Internet in their spare time.

On the health angle alone, it would not be a gross exaggeration to say that social media warrants similar regulatory measures as tobacco products, since mental health is one of the top ten global health crises in 2023 according to a Public Health Challenges study.[8] Social media’s correlation with declining mental health and its borderless, easily accessible nature make it a national public health problem analogous to a dangerous substance that causes lethal diseases.

It is worth emphasizing that the SMRD does not constitute the usual criticisms lobbied at social media regulation – the potential threat to free speech, stifling of innovation, the complexities of all the different platforms[9] – since it is functionally just an extra source of information, nothing more or less. People will have the same freedoms to use social media however and however much they wish. The SMRD’s goal is simply for them to be better informed in using that freedom.

Despite the multiple comparisons to tobacco regulations, the ultimate goal of the SMRD is not to eradicate social media use entirely. The intent is for these regulations to promote positive activity and companionship online, so that vulnerable individuals – such as LGBTQ+ individuals who may lack a supporting community offline – may find accurate health information and comfort from those just like themselves. Knowing how to use social media responsibly is key to reaping the benefits without suffering the drawbacks, and will likely result in lower rates of mental health problems among the youth population.

About the author

Max Sun is a JD Candidate at Queen's Law University - Class of 2025.


[1] Amira Hmidan et al, “Media screen time use and mental health in school-aged children during the pandemic” (2023)

[2] Agnes Zsila & Marc Reyes, “Pros & cons: impacts of social media on mental health” (2023)

[4] Adam Miller, “Cigarette warning labels are about to get even harder to ignore in Canada” (2023)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Erika Edwards & Hallie Jackson, “Social media is driving teen mental health crisis, surgeon general warns” (2023)

[7] Christoph Schimmele et al, “Canadians’ assessments of social media in their lives” (2021)

[8] Don Eliseo Lucero-Prisno III et al, “Top 10 public health challenges to track in 2023”

[9] Soniya Roy, “Why social media should not be regulated” (2023)

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