Late last month, the U.S. surgeon general issued an advisory—a format reserved for public-health issues that demand the nation’s immediate attention. “Nearly every teenager in America uses social media,” the report read, “and yet we do not have enough evidence to conclude that it is sufficiently safe for them.” In response, the Biden administration announced a new interagency task force that has been given a year to come up with a slate of policy recommendations that will help “safeguard” children online.
This may be a legislative problem for Big Tech, and it’s certainly a public-relations problem. Over the past several years, cigarettes have become the dominant metaphor in the discourse about social media: Everyone seems to think that these sites are dangerous and addictive, like cigarettes. Young people get hooked. At a congressional hearing on Facebook’s impact on teenagers in 2021, Senator Ed Markey tossed the comparison at Antigone Davis, a vice president and the global head of safety for Meta, Instagram’s parent company. “Facebook is just like Big Tobacco, pushing a product that they know is harmful to the health of young people, pushing it to them early,” Markey, a Democrat, said. Now the metaphor is even more compelling, as it can also evoke the famous 1964 surgeon-general warning about the scientific evidence of cigarettes causing lung cancer.