There is “reason to be concerned” about the potential harm social media inflicts on young Americans, the U.S. surgeon general said Tuesday in an advisory that adds to mounting alarm over the constant and near-universal use of online platforms among teenagers and adolescents.
Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s 25-page advisory said there are some benefits to social media for teens and adolescents, including self-expression and a sense of connection among LGBTQ people or those with disabilities. But he also warned about the potential dangers, saying the risk rises with the amount of time spent online.
“Increasingly, evidence is indicating there is reason to be concerned about the risk of harm social media use poses to children and adolescents,” the advisory said. “Children and adolescents on social media are commonly exposed to extreme, inappropriate, and harmful content, and those who spend more than three hours a day on social media face double the risk of poor mental health including experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety.”
Many users are exposed to “hate-based content” online or content related to suicide or self-harm. Adolescent girls are particularly susceptible to feeling dissatisfied with their bodies because of the content they see on social media.
According to surveys, 46% of users ages 13-17 said social media makes them feel worse about their body image, 40% said it makes them feel neither better nor worse and only 14% said it makes them feel better.
Dr. Murthy said the stakes are high because 95% of teenagers report using social media, and more than a third of the teen group say they use it “almost constantly.” Also, 40% of those ages 8 to 12 report using social media.
At the same time, children in these age groups are at a pivotal stage in brain development that can make children more vulnerable to social media’s harm.
“Children are exposed to harmful content on social media, ranging from violent and sexual content to bullying and harassment,” the surgeon general said. “And for too many children, social media use is compromising their sleep and valuable in-person time with family and friends. We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis, and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis — one that we must urgently address.”
Dr. Murthy said there hasn’t been enough research into social media’s impacts to determine whether it is safe. He commented less than two weeks after the American Psychological Association issued a health advisory saying social media usage does not necessarily hurt or help children. Rather, the group said, its impact is a mixed bag contingent on individual circumstances.
“Using social media is not inherently beneficial or harmful to young people,” the APA advisory said. “Adolescents’ lives online both reflect and impact their offline lives. In most cases, the effects of social media are dependent on adolescents’ own personal and psychological characteristics and social circumstances.”
While many young people were born into the digital age, the prominence of social media is a relatively new phenomenon that arose within the past two decades, making it difficult to have a full grasp of the consequences. Experts and advocates say it is important for the medical profession and others to catch up to the trend.
Zachary K. Blumkin, an assistant professor of medical psychology at Columbia University, said there has been a significant increase in child and adolescent mental health issues since 2012.
“The COVID pandemic likely further exacerbated this trend,” he said. “We also know that this increase is disproportionately impacting minoritized teens such as Native American teens, Black teens, LGBTQ teens and female teens as well. While we don’t know what the primary driver is, we know social media plays a role. For example, now more than ever children, at young ages, have access to alarming issues such as mass violence, global warming, natural disasters and political polarization. And some of these children and teens may not be able to receive and process this information in a way that is adaptive and effective.”
The advisory called on tech companies to design platforms that adhere to age limits and protect children’s privacy. It also said the companies should share with independent researchers any data on the societal impacts of their platforms.
Parents should establish tech-free zones and times to foster better relationships and sleep, the advisory said, and young users should take steps on their own to block unsafe content or help friends who seem to be in distress about social media content.
And it recommended that policymakers consider measures “to strengthen safety standards and limit access in ways that make social media safer for children of all ages, better protect children’s privacy, support digital and media literacy and fund additional research.”
Dr. Blumkin said younger children, in particular, should not be using social media.
“If they are using social media, monitoring all platforms, making sure they are age appropriate and understanding the privacy settings is essential,” Dr. Blumkin said. “Additionally, speaking with children and adolescents openly about the risks of social media is important for children and adolescents of all ages.”
Some states have taken steps to limit children’s social media usage.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders recently signed a bill that requires minors to get parental consent before setting up a social media account.
Starting in September, the platforms must contract with third-party vendors to verify the age of users and obtain parental consent if a person is younger than 18.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed similar legislation earlier this year. The measure will go into effect in March 2024.
Mr. Cox also signed a measure that prohibits minors from using social media between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m.
The surgeon general’s advisory says on a typical weekday, nearly 1 in 3 adolescents report using on-screen media until midnight or later.
Montana recently approved a statewide ban on TikTok due to concerns about its Chinese parent company. TikTok is suing over the ban, saying it violates the First Amendment and that claims the Chinese government can access user data are “unfounded.”
Experts said they have little doubt, however, that social media can be harmful to kids and the surgeon general was right to identify it.
“Over the past several years, we have seen the popularization of platforms like Instagram and TikTok lead to serious consequences for our kids, including a rise in eating disorders and depression,” said Jake Denton, a research associate in the Tech Policy Center at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “These platforms are undeniably inflicting irreparable damage on countless members of the next generation, and the worst consequences may still be on the horizon. It is imperative for lawmakers, medical professionals, and parents to confront the stark reality of the harm caused by these platforms before it is too late. American families deserve a strong legislative solution that takes the necessary steps to protect our kids online.”
• Ryan Lovelace contributed to this story.
• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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