Experts hail U.S. surgeon general’s social media warning for youth mental health

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy delivers remarks during a news conference at the White House in Washington July 15, 2021. Murthy released a 21-page advisory May 23, 2023, that called for “emergency action at all levels over youth social media usage for the sake of their mental health.” (OSV News photo/Tom Brenner, Reuters)

By Kimberley Heatherington, OSV News

For parents still wondering if social media can be harmful to their children’s mental health, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy had a warning May 23: “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.”

The “Surgeon General’s Advisory on Social Media and Youth Mental Health” is 21 pages of details and statistics succinctly summarized in the accompanying U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) press release: “While social media may offer some benefits, there are ample indicators that social media can also pose a risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”

Since HHS reports that almost 95% of young people ages 13-17 use social media — with more than one out of three saying they are on social media “almost constantly” — the scope of Murthy’s concern is nearly universal.

“The most common question parents ask me is, ‘is social media safe for my kids’. The answer is that we don’t have enough evidence to say it’s safe, and in fact, there is growing evidence that social media use is associated with harm to young people’s mental health,” Murthy noted in the same press release. “Children are exposed to harmful content on social media, ranging from violent and sexual content, to bullying and harassment. And for too many children, social media use is compromising their sleep and valuable in-person time with family and friends.”

“It doesn’t call for a complete ban or a complete restriction on social media for minors, but it indicates some paths forward for policy makers — and especially the social media platforms — to help ensure that kids can be online, and have it be safe, and not harmful, for them.”

Amanda Raffoul, Harvard Medical School

Experts told OSV News they welcomed the surgeon general’s announcement.

“Not only does the surgeon general’s report call for something to be done — it calls for something to be done fast,” said Amanda Raffoul, an instructor in the pediatrics department at Harvard Medical School, and a fellow in the division of adolescent and young adult medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital.

“I think that the surgeon general’s report can help to amplify some of the concerns that the research community — as well as in policy and child mental health more broadly — has had for the past couple of years,” Raffoul told OSV News. “It doesn’t call for a complete ban or a complete restriction on social media for minors, but it indicates some paths forward for policy makers — and especially the social media platforms — to help ensure that kids can be online, and have it be safe, and not harmful, for them.”

The HHS notes that “among the benefits, adolescents report that social media helps them feel more accepted (58%), like they have people who can support them through tough times (67%), like they have a place to show their creative side (71%), and more connected to what’s going on in their friends’ lives (80%).”

Nonetheless, excessive use of social media poses serious consequences, with the HHS observing “recent research shows that adolescents who spend more than three hours per day on social media face double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes, such as symptoms of depression and anxiety; yet one 2021 survey of teenagers found that, on average, they spend 3.5 hours a day on social media. Social media may also perpetuate body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviors, social comparison, and low self-esteem, especially among adolescent girls.”

Almost half (46%) of teens ages 13-17 said social media made them feel worse about their body image. Hate-based social media content also is “often” or “sometimes” encountered by 64% of adolescents.

“As a parent, social media access for our kids feels like Pandora’s box,” said Kristin Bird, a mother of three who has written on the topic of social media use for the Catholic youth ministry Life Teen, and also directs the Wisconsin-based parish and diocesan consulting firm Burning Hearts Disciples.

“It seems like it would be much easier to avoid social media altogether than to either roll back access once it’s been allowed or to try to undo psychological, social and spiritual harm caused by social media after it’s happened,” Bird told OSV News. “The key is striking a balance that helps protect our kids and gradually allowing age-appropriate technologies as our children demonstrate they can handle them with maturity.”

“On the one hand, it’s coming too late for the kids and young adults already experiencing the adverse effects,” Bird observed. “On the other hand: better late than never!”

Bird is emphatic about the role parents must play.

“Legislation around social media will undoubtedly help parents, but we can’t rely on the government to do our job for us,” she said. “We need to own the responsibility to keep our kids safe and have conversations with them about the dangers of social media, just like we need to talk with them about the dangers of alcohol, drugs, and other risky behaviors.”

Jessica Heldman, a child rights professor at the University of San Diego and a member of its Children’s Advocacy Institute, said Big Tech companies must nonetheless be held responsible for the harm done to youth.

“They are learning to starve themselves, harm themselves, and loathe themselves as they replace sleep and healthy activity with hours on social media,” Heldman said of teen social media users. “Yet, social media platforms continue to profit off of algorithms and design features that push harmful content to children and make it nearly impossible to disengage from their platforms.”

“This advisory emphasizes what is truly at stake,” Heldman told OSV News, “and it dispels any notion that social media platforms are somehow so different from other products that they should be allowed to operate with impunity.”

Christopher McKenna, a digital security expert, founder of Protect Young Eyes and a keynote speaker at the 2022 National Catholic Educational Association conference, noted that “in culture today, we tend to treat children as if they are mini adults. And that is simply untrue. Childhood is unique. The brains of children are unique. They are in a unique developmental phase.”

“Technology doesn’t treat us differently, though,” McKenna told OSV News. “So we have put children, with children’s brains … inside of these extremely intelligent technologies. The most brilliant software engineers on earth are crafting these technologies. And then we get upset when these children make decisions like children, inside of technologies that were never crafted for them in the first place.”

McKenna praised the HHS’ policy suggestions, which include policymakers strengthening safety and privacy standards; greater transparency by tech companies; parental instruction to kids about responsible online behavior; limiting of online time by children; and prioritization by researchers to establish social media standards and evaluation.

“We are experimenting on children,” said McKenna. “We can’t wait for science to catch up with the experience that parents and educators are observing firsthand.”

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