In Quest to Warn about Social Media, Surgeon General Should Not Neglect Video Games

June 17, 2024

Amid Congress’ glacial-speed progress on Internet regulation, the United States Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, is calling for a warning label on social media platforms reminding parents that social media use is associated with significant mental health harms among adolescents. A warning label added to tobacco products in 1965 contributed to a 50-year decline in smoking, according to some studies. A label appended to social media sites, if displayed prominently, could serve as a helpful antidote to social media’s addictive algorithms while Congress considers more robust action.

But, to have its desired effect on teen health, the surgeon general’s warning label should be added not only to traditional social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok, but also to online gaming sites, which contain their own set of addictive features.

The surgeon general’s call for a warning label comes at a time when concerns about the effects of social media on teens’ mental health are at a new high, thanks in large part to a best-selling book by our NYU Stern colleague Johnathan Haidt. Entitled The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, Haidt’s book has captured national attention and generated a heated debate among social psychologists, some of whom question the soundness of his conclusions. But these animated discussions have failed to consider an equally significant time-suck in teenagers’ lives: video games.

Around 76% of American kids under 18 play online games and, according to some estimates, Gen-Z gamers spend an average of seven hours and 20 minutes on video games per week. While gaming companies typically don’t rely on algorithms to maximize user engagement (or their own advertisement revenue), they use other methods, such as rewards systems and design tactics, that allegedly keep gamers hooked and spending money on their platforms. So much so that the American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization include the condition of “gaming disorder” in their manuals of mental disorders.

Besides addiction, some video games carry the potential for acute harm, including exposure to violent extremist ideologies and hate-based harassment, as our Center has reported. For these reasons, our Center has privately urged the surgeon general to consider video games within the scope of his concern surrounding online addiction and harms. The surgeon general’s decision to raise the volume of his alarm about health risks associated with social media presents another opportunity to bring the subject of video games to his attention.  


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