Facebook and Twitter should display pop-up warning signs if users are on them for too long, according to health experts.
They want social media websites to install alerts which automatically appear on the screen after a set number of hours.
These messages would include information about coping with addiction and about the potential dangers of overuse
Social media companies should warn users if they are spending too long on line
The recommendation has been put forward by the Royal Society of Public Health - which represents 6,000 doctors, researchers and specialist.
The organisation is becoming increasingly concerned that social media is fuelling soaring rates of anxiety, depression and sleeplessness in teenagers and young adults.
A report by the organisation today warns that social media is more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol and is having a huge impact on mental health.
It includes a survey of 1,479 youngsters aged 14 to 24 which ranked Instagram as the most harmful social media site.
This is a website where users post picture of each other and often add cruel remarks.
Snapchat - an app where users send photos – was ranked second worst out of the five main social media sites.
Facebook was third, followed by Twitter and then YouTube was seen as the least harmful.
Shirley Cramer Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Public Health said: ‘Social media has been described as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol, and is now so entrenched in the lives of young people that it is no longer possible to ignore it when talking about young people’s mental health issues.
‘As the evidence grows that there may be potential harms from heavy use of social media, and as we upgrade the status of mental health within society, it is important that we have checks and balances in place to make social media less of a wild west when it comes to young people’s mental health and wellbeing.’
One anonymous respondent who took part in the survey said they were ‘constantly worried’ about what others thought of their posts and pictures.
Another said they were spending so much time on the sites they were losing out on sleep, their homework and time with friends and family.
Too much social media use can cause depression and sleeplessness, scientists believe
The report also calls for the staff running social media sites to do more to identify users with mental health problems.
It recommends that staff look through posts for particularly depressive messages and help point users in the direction of support.
Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity SANE said: ‘We have become increasingly concerned about the escalating epidemic of depression, anxiety and self-harm amongst children and adolescents, and particularly teenage girls.
‘Today’s young generation has to contend with the power of the internet, the influence of ‘virtual friends’, and the way in which 24/7 exposure to social media can have a potentially destructive effect on self-esteem, body image or sex.
‘Young people can find themselves damned if they do take part, and damned if they don’t as they risk becoming isolated from their peers.’
A spokesman for the Mental Health Foundation charity said: ‘This is an area that needs a lot more research, social media isn’t inherently bad for our mental health but depending on how we use it, it can certainly have a negative impact.
‘Comparing ourselves to images on social media could be particularly harmful because it involves comparing the behind-the-scenes of our own lives with the highlights reels of everyone else’s. All of us could do with being more honest on social media.’