Social media presents ‘profound risk of harm’ for kids, US surgeon general says – WISH-TV | Indianapolis News | Indiana Weather
(CNN) – There is not enough evidence to determine whether social media is safe enough for children and adolescents when it comes to their mental health, according to a new advisory from the US surgeon general.
Tuesday’s advice notes that while there are some benefits, social media use poses “a high risk of harm” to children. It calls for increased research into social media’s impact on youth mental health, as well as action from policymakers and technology companies.
The 25-page advisory comes as a growing number of states aim to tighten regulations on social media platforms, including efforts in Montana to ban TikTok.
Surgeon general advice is designed to draw attention to pressing public health issues and provide recommendations on how to address them, the new report says. Previous advice has focused on youth mental health in general, health misinformation and the use of the opioid overdose antidote naloxone.
“We are in the midst of a youth mental health crisis, and I am concerned that social media is contributing to the harm children are experiencing,” said Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy told CNN.
“For too long we have placed the entire burden of managing social media on the shoulders of parents and children, despite the fact that these platforms were designed by some of the most talented engineers and designers in the world to reduce the amount of time we children spend on them,” he said. “So it’s not a fair fight. It is time we have the backs of parents and children.”
The advice includes a review of the available evidence on the effects of social media on youth mental health, noting that social media use among children is “almost universal”: Up to 95% of children aged 13 to 17 report that they use social media, with more than a third saying they use it “almost constantly”. And while 13 is usually the minimum age to use social media sites in the US (an age Murthy previously said was too young), the advisory notes that nearly 40% of children between the ages of 8 and 12 also use the platforms used.
“We must recognize the growing body of research on potential harm, increase our collective understanding of the risks associated with social media use, and take urgent action to create safe and healthy digital environments,” the advisory says.
The report cites several ways in which social media can cause harm to youth mental health, noting that the adolescent years are a particularly vulnerable time for brain development. It describes studies that have found links between social media use and depression and anxiety, as well as poor sleep, online harassment and low self-esteem, especially for girls.
One study of 6,595 American adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15 found that those who spent more than three hours a day on social media had twice the risk of symptoms of depression and anxiety than non-users, the report said. It also cites studies that found that reducing social media use led to improvements in mental health.
The use of social media carries a risk of exposure to dangerous content, including depictions of self-harm, “which may normalize such behaviour,” the advisory says. It also cites 20 studies that found a significant link between social media use and body image concerns and eating disorders.
Murthy told CNN that the three most common things he hears from kids about social media are, “number one, it makes them feel worse about themselves; number two, it makes them feel worse about their friendships; but number three, they can’t get away from it.”
Excessive use of social media can disrupt important healthy behaviors, including sleep, the advisory warns, noting that platforms are often designed to engage users with push notifications, autoplay and infinite scrolling features, and algorithms that use the user’s data to customize content recommendations. It cites some researchers’ belief that exposure to social media, with overstimulation of the brain’s reward centers, “can trigger pathways comparable to addiction.”
The advice’s summary of potential risks of social media use on youth mental health spans five pages; his description of the potential benefits takes only half a page. It points out that social media can provide positive community and connection with others, which can be especially important for children who are often marginalized. It cites studies showing mental health benefits from social media use for lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, transgender, queer, intersex and other youth through peer connections, and “identity-affirming content” related to race that was positive for adolescents girls of color . Finally, it notes that social media can be helpful in connecting some children with mental health care.
The advisory includes recommendations for families struggling with social media use, including creating family media plans, encouraging children to develop personal friendships and modeling good social media behavior.
Murthy said it was something he and his wife discussed for their children, who are now 5 and 6.
Their plan is to delay using social media until at least after middle school; to try to find other families to work with who are similar, “because there is strength in numbers”; and to reevaluate when the kids are in high school to see if better safety standards are put in place “and actually enforced,” he said.
“None of this is easy for parents to do,” he admitted. “That’s why we’re pushing so hard through this advisory to make the urgent case for action.”
Adam Kovacevich, founder and CEO of the technology coalition Chamber of Progress, said online platforms have heard the concerns of parents and researchers and implemented features to protect younger users, such as limiting nighttime notifications.
“I’m sure efforts to protect children are well-intentioned, but we shouldn’t trade off teenagers’ privacy by requiring them to verify their age, or cut off their access to supportive online communities,” Kovacevich said in a statement.
Murthy says he hopes the report will spur action on several levels, such as increased research and funding for it, policy changes and especially greater transparency and action from technology companies.
“Independent researchers tell us all the time that they find it difficult to get full access to the information they need from technology companies about the health impacts on children,” he said.
Murthy said social media companies should be held to similar standards for protecting children as other industries.
“We take this safety-first approach with other products that children use, from medications to car seats to toys,” Murthy said. “We have to do it here too.”