The Surgeon General offered the federal government’s starkest warning to date on Tuesday over the ways social media may harm young users’ mental health. In a public advisory, Vivek Murthy said there are “ample indicators” that social media poses a “profound risk of harm” to children’s mental health and development.
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The country’s foremost doctor said there’s simply not enough data currently available to determine if social media is “sufficiently safe” for children and adolescents. Though Murthy acknowledged some of social media’s benefits for young people, the advisory strikes a decidedly more urgent, cautionary tone than previous surgeon generals’ reports on the technology.
The advisory says youth social media use is “nearly universal,” with up to 95% of teenagers and 40% of kids between 8-12 on social networks, often in violation of companies’ own age minimums of 13 years old. Children and teens are regularly exposed to extreme or harmful content on the apps which can take a toll on their mental and physical health. Those outcomes are far worse for kids who use the apps frequently. Young users who spend more than three hours per day on social media, the advisory note, face double the risk of experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression than those who use it less.
“Nearly every teenager in America uses social media, and yet we do not have enough evidence to conclude that it is sufficiently safe for them,” the advisory says. “Our children have become unknowing participants in a decades-long experiment.”
What are the potential harms discussed in the surgeon general’s advisory?
The degree to which social media may harm young users, the advisory notes, ultimately depends on a variety of factors such as the amount of time they spend on social networks, what types of potentially harmful content they see, and the degree to which those activities interfere with necessities like sleep and exercise. Users’ experiences may also vary widely depending on their personal mental health and a number of other socio-economic factors.
The advisory warns that frequent social media use, especially amongst people between the ages of 10 and 19, could be associated with “distinct changes” in parts of the brain responsible for emotional learning and behavior and impulse control. Those changes in developing brains, the advisory warns, could lead to an increased sensitivity to social rewards and punishments.
In other words, frequent social media use could make kids and teens more susceptible to negative feelings associated with comparing themselves to others on platforms which could exacerbate mental health concerns. Harmful social comparisons stemming from social media can perpetuate harmful real-world problems like body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, and low self-esteem. Nearly half (46%) of teens aged between 13-17 surveyed in a study cited by the advisory said social media made them feel worse.
Social media does have benefits, particularly among vulnerable groups
Social media isn’t without its benefits. The advisory notes that social networks can offer kids a sense of community and connection with other like-minded people who share their interests and identities. Similarly, the wide nature of social media means users can potentially expose themselves to and interact with a more diverse range of voices than they could offline. Benefits from social media are particularly felt by members of traditionally marginalized groups like LGBTQ children, who can turn to others for peer support and community, according to the surgeon general’s report.
Still, even after acknowledging those meaningful benefits, the advisory points to several pieces of key research showing cause for alarm. Specifically, the advisory cites a study showing how teens between the ages of 12-15 who use social media for more than three hours per day face double the risk of experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression compared to those who log on more sparingly.
Other research looking at college-aged users who were told to limit their social media experience to 30 minutes per day resulted in “significant improvements in depression severity.” Deactivation of users’ social media accounts for four weeks in yet another study led to an increase in subjective well-being and happiness.
Social media design choices may be making harms worse
Crucially, the advisory says design functionalities and engagement models pursued by social media companies could have the potential to encourage or exacerbate harmful behavior. Push notifications, infinite scrolls, likes and comments all work in tandem to keep users on platforms for as long as possible. That’s a potential danger for young users in particular because frequency of use is associated with worse mental health outcomes. In one of the studies cited, more than one-third of girls 11-15 said they felt “addicted” to a social media platform.
“We must acknowledge the growing body of research about potential harms, increase our collective understanding of the risks associated with social media use, and urgently take action to create safe and healthy digital environments that minimize harm and safeguard children’s and adolescents’ mental health and well-being during critical stages of development,” the advisory notes.
Major social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok have taken numerous steps in recent years to inform young users when they have spent a certain amount of time on their apps and to place some restrictions on the types of accounts they can interact with. Child health advocates and a growing cohort of lawmakers from both political parties say those efforts don’t go far enough. A Politico report released last month, for instance, estimates more than 27 different bills have been proposed in at least 16 different state houses all trying to get at the issue of kids’ online safety, though often from markedly different angles.
Murthy didn’t advocate in favor of any specific legislation, but he did encourage policymakers to strengthen existing safety protections. He also called on social media companies to do more to enforce tier own age minimums and increase transparency. Parents, meanwhile, should consider other cautionary steps like creating “tech-free zones”and improving in-personal relationships, he said.
The report comes just weeks after The American Psychological Association, one of the nation’s leading mental health organizations, released its own public advisory on social media sounding similar alarm bells. The two reports mark a subtle shift in the way leading health organizations are discussing social media’s effect on young people. Both make efforts to point out the benefits of platforms and stress the need for additional research, but they’re also more willing than before to loudly flag frequent social media use as a public health concern.