Subway Surfing: A Dangerous Phenomenon

Subway surfing isn’t just a risky trend—it’s a reflection of the struggles of today’s youth manifesting in dangerous actions, a call for change in the mental health field, public transportation, and a lesson in the way society handles teen-related issues in New York City.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In the bustling metropolis of New York City, a dangerous trend is affecting the lives of many teens: subway surfing. What was once a fictional thrill shown in movies, TV shows, and most notably the video game Subway Surfers has now become a life-threatening reality with teenagers risking their futures for the act. The phenomenon of subway surfing, fueled by social media, highlights the deeper issue of the lack of support for mental health and adolescent services. While punitive measures and campaigns enacted by the government aim to provide greater awareness of the dangers of subway surfing, we must address the motivations that drive adolescents to subway surf and alternatively offer alternative outlets to ensure their safety.

For many teens, the thrill of subway surfing is appealing. Exploring their curiosities, testing their boundaries, and looking for escapes from their turbulent social, academic, and home lives is teenage nature. While teenagers are constantly in search of outlets for self-expression, the recent spike in teen mental health crises and the underdeveloped mental health system renders these safer outlets ineffective, inaccessible, and even unappealing. As a result, teenagers desperate for ways to cope turn to a dangerous new option popularized by its media presence: subway surfing. Michael, a young teenager diagnosed with anxiety, major depressive disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and post-traumatic-stress disorder, started surfing to escape what he called “issues at home.” Despite being admitted into multiple outpatient centers, “none of the treatments worked,” and he eventually started to “look at other options.” Michael and other teenagers aren’t alone. The impact of the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, amongst other things, permeates the lives of adolescents today with a 25 percent increase in adolescent anxiety and depression worldwide. The massive increase in the prevalence of mental health problems, coupled with major disruptions in mental health services during the global lockdown, is thought to have prompted many adolescents to turn to subway surfing. Though care centers have reopened, many teenagers still remain unable to get the care they need. What simply started as a new coping mechanism for a few during the lockdown has spread quickly, influencing other teens to engage in similar activities.

Though subway surfing has been around since the 1980s, the recent surge has been attributed to viral videos on social media during 2021 and 2022. As subway surfing videos on platforms like Instagram and TikTok gained hundreds of views, likes, and comments, the New York MTA saw a massive spike in subway surfing numbers, jumping from 199 reported incidents in 2020 to 928 in 2023—a startling 366 percent increase. These viral videos may unintentionally encourage and expose impressionable teenagers to subway surfing, causing them to believe that this new “trend” will make them appear cool. After realizing how social media fuels this dangerous trend, Mayor Eric Adams called a “social media summit” with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and blamed social media platforms for furthering teen subway surfing and driving the decline of teenager mental health. In addition, MTA Chairman Janne Lieber blames the rise of subway surfing “squarely on social media,” insisting that social media companies remove these dangerous videos. Most platforms have dismissed these criticisms, but some have removed and censored over 3,000 subway surfing videos since the summit. While Mayor Adams is right that social media exposes teenagers to harmful trends, targeting private tech companies is an ineffective approach that promotes censorship. After all, as a tech company put it, there was “subway surfing before social media [and] there will be subway surfing after this as well.”

In addition to a flawed mental health system, the outdated solutions of the local government and MTA further exacerbate the subway surfing trend. The city authorities often resort to band-aid solutions and juvenile punishments such as arrests and suspensions. In 2023, teenage subway surfing arrests in the last six months experienced a 193 percent increase compared to the last three decades. The MTA needs to take action beyond educational campaigns and reform subway platforms and cars to prevent the ability to subway surf. For example, countries like South Korea have a tube system at every station with platforms isolated from the rails by glass walls to prevent people from climbing on the trains. In addition, South Korea has connecting train cars so people can’t maneuver in the open space between two train cars. This makes train surfing virtually impossible as there is no area for teenagers to climb to the top of the subway cars. These reforms, though expensive, can lead to a decrease in subway-related deaths besides subway surfing. Changing the infrastructure by creating platform barriers and even smaller reforms such as a more efficient emergency communications system can decrease reaction time when dealing with instances of subway surfing and also physically prevent the act.

Governments and institutions must adopt a more holistic approach prioritizing support and intervention rather than relying solely on punishment. Creating a safer environment for teenagers to find stable outlets such as sports, therapy, or art by establishing mentoring programs or accessible counseling should be the priority. Local community boards can assess their neighborhoods and, based on risk factors, recommend a budget for the creation of accessible recreational opportunities for teenagers. This could mean expanding sports leagues and art programs that start off as grassroots programs.

It is also the responsibility of adolescents to create more awareness and prevent

their friends from engaging in subway surfing. Students at the Art and Design High School in NYC are already starting to realize their potential in “using the voices of young people to reach other young people in making good decisions. Safe decisions.” These students have made graphics to spread in school and created a peer-to-peer network that amplifies youth voices and helps steer others away from danger.

To solve the issue of subway surfing, every community in the city, students and adults, need to work together to incite change. Similar to many situations, a one-size-fits-all solution of simply addressing one part of the problem will not suffice. It’s imperative that students support each other to promote safety awareness and better empathize with their peers. The reform of mental health services, MTA infrastructure, and safety protocols are also essential steps in mitigating immediate dangers of subway surfing as well as preventing future crises from arising. Ultimately, subway surfing is more than just a teenage trend—it’s a sign to both adolescents and authorities that the mental health system, the MTA, and society’s solutions for teen-related issues are far more complex and in need of change than many may think.