A warning issued on Tuesday by the US Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, hinted at an issue that has worried American parents for years: the negative effects of social media on the mental health of young people.
These types of public health advisories are infrequent, but sometimes become turning points in American life.
It took a surgeon general’s report in 1964 and decades of ensuing effort to change America’s perception of smoking from a glamorous habit to one with deadly consequences.
Annual per capita cigarette consumption in the United States rose from 54 cigarettes in 1900 to more than 4,000 cigarettes in 1963, when early research suggested links between smoking and cancer.
This prompted Dr. Luther L. Terry, Surgeon General under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, to publish a landmark report on the health risks and consequences of smoking in 1964.
Dr Terry described the crisis as a “national concern”.
The fallout was quick. In 1965, Congress required that all cigarette packages distributed in the United States carry a health warning. In 1970, cigarette advertising on television and radio was banned.
Tobacco continued to be the target of surgeons general, who later highlighted concerns about second-hand smoke and tobacco promotions targeting children. And in 2016, Dr. Murthy released a comprehensive report that called e-cigarettes and tobacco vaping a “major health concern.”
Dr. C. Everett Koop, surgeon general under President Reagan, has been credited with changing the public discourse around the HIV/AIDS epidemic during the 1980s. In 1986 he published a Generational Report on the AIDS. In plain language, the report discusses risk factors and ways to protect yourself, including using condoms for safer sex.
But a candid discussion of sexual matters later tripped up a surgeon general who served under President Bill Clinton, Dr. Joycelyn Elders. Although her efforts to expand access to health screenings and sex education were hailed by some, she resigned under pressure in 1994 after proposing the distribution of contraceptives in schools and condoning the teaching of sex. masturbation to children as a way to prevent HIV transmission, among other things. opinions that have drawn the ire of conservatives.
Violence on TV and in video games
In 1972, Dr. Jesse L. Steinfeld, surgeon general under President Richard Nixon, called for “appropriate and immediate corrective action” after a report found a “uniformly negative effect” on children who watch television violence. .
In the late 1980s, the numbers were startling: About 25,000 people in the United States died each year in alcohol-related traffic crashes.
In one of his last acts as surgeon general, Dr Koop called for tough new blood alcohol standards for drivers in 1989, as well as higher taxes on alcoholic beverages and a restriction of alcoholic beverage advertising. He also called for the abolition of happy hours and the immediate suspension of any licensed driver found to be above the legal limit.
At the turn of this century, some 300,000 Americans were dying of a disease caused or worsened by obesity, prompting Dr. David Satcher, surgeon general under President Clinton, to call in 2001 for major steps to address this which he described as an epidemic.
But the crisis only grew. From 1999 to 2017, the prevalence of obesity in the United States increased from 30% to 42%, and severe obesity increased from 5% to 9%, according to the CDC.
Gun violence and loneliness
Social networks are not the only concern of the current surgeon general. Dr. Murthy has also called gun violence in America a public health problem and more recently an epidemic.
He called for more research and government intervention. Former surgeons general and researchers have also called for policy change centered on treating gun violence as a public health crisis. Nearly 50,000 Americans died from gun-related injuries in 2021, more than any other year on record, according to the CDC. It is the leading cause of death among children in the United States.
And earlier this month, Dr Murthy released a surgeon general’s opinion and a new framework to address “the public health crisis of loneliness, isolation and lack of connection in our country”. This trend has been amplified by the coronavirus pandemic, he said.
The physical health consequences of poor or insufficient connection include higher risks of other health problems.
Here are his tips for feeling less alone.
Notably, the Loneliness Report does not recommend social media as a form of connection and urges Americans to ensure that digital interactions do “not interfere with meaningful and healing connection.”