U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy on Tuesday issued a warning about the mental health impacts of social media on young people, and called for tech companies, policymakers, researchers and families to make an effort to better understand the consequences of using the platforms.
“The most common question parents ask me is, ‘Is social media safe for my kids?’” Murthy said in a statement accompanying the release of an advisory on social media and youth mental health. “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.”
The advisory notes that social media use by young people is “nearly universal,” with up to 95% of kids between 13 and 17 years old reporting that they’re on at least one platform. More than a third say they use social media “almost constantly.”
“Despite this widespread use among children and adolescents, robust independent safety analyses on the impact of social media on youth have not yet been conducted,” the advisory said, pointing to the increasing concerns about the platforms’ impact.
“More research is needed to fully understand the impact of social media; however, the current body of evidence indicates that while social media may have benefits for some children and adolescents, there are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents,” the advisory stated. “At this time, we do not yet have enough evidence to determine if social media is sufficiently safe for children and adolescents.”
The advisory said urgent action is needed 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.”
It makes clear that there are many factors that influence the impact social media can have, from the amount of time spent online to the type of content they consume, and acknowledges that there are potential benefits, including being able to connect with others who share identities, abilities and interests. Support from peers online can help buffer the stress for young people who are marginalized — for instance seven out of 10 adolescent girls of color reported finding positive or identify affirming content related to race across platforms.
Social media can also help people who are experiencing mental health concerns by promoting help-seeking, the report said.
But the evidence that has emerged over the last decade also finds potential negative impacts, including studies that found that being online for more than three hours per day doubled “the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes including symptoms of depression and anxiety.”
Research has also showed that limiting social media use has mental health benefits for college-age adults, particularly for those with high levels of depression.
The advisory also pointed to harm from “extreme, inappropriate, and harmful content,” including cases where childhood deaths have been linked to suicide and self-harm related content, along with and risk-taking challenges online that especially appeal to adolescents. Social media may also perpetuate body dissatisfaction and eating disorders and provide the means for cyberbullying.
“In addition, social media platforms can be sites for predatory behaviors and interactions with malicious actors who target children and adolescents,” the report said.
The surgeon general called on policymakers to strengthen protections for children and ensure that tech companies share data relevant to the health impact of their platforms with researchers and the public. He also called for the development of digital and media literacy curricula in schools.
Along with sharing data, tech companies should conduct and facilitate assessments of the impact of their products on kids, the advisory said, along with designing platforms that “foster safe and healthy online environments for youth” and beefing up efforts to address complaints from young people and their families.
The report also put responsibility for policing social media use on parents, urging them to create a “family media plan” that establishes technology boundaries at home, including “tech free zones” for kids, especially before bedtime, as social media use can interfere with sleep.