The U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, issued a rare public warning about the risks of social media to young people, urging them to understand potential harm it may cause to their mental health and well-being. While social media may be beneficial to some users, Dr. Murthy notes that there are ample indicators that it can seriously harm children and adolescents. His report includes practical recommendations for families to help guide children’s use of social media, such as avoiding device use at mealtimes and creating a “family media plan.” Dr. Murthy also called on tech companies to enforce age limits and create default settings for kids with high safety and privacy standards, and for governments to develop age-appropriate health and safety standards for technology platforms.
Adolescents are “more than just little adults” and are at different stages of development during critical stages of brain development, says Dr. Murthy. Growing up in an era of social media, many struggle with how to limit its use. The governor of Montana recently signed a bill banning TikTok from operating in the state, and young TikTok users have filed lawsuits regarding “face kicks.” Utah recently became the first state to ban social media services from having accounts for users under the age of 18 without explicit parental or guardian consent.
While up to 95% of teens reported using at least one social media platform, self-reported and clinical diagnoses of anxiety and depression among adolescents and emergency room visits for self-harm and suicidal ideation have also increased as social media use increases. This report may spur further research to understand whether these trends are related. The American Psychological Association also released guidance on social media earlier this month, urging parents to closely monitor teens’ usage and tech companies to encourage features such as infinite scrolling and “Like” buttons.
While social media can have positive effects on youth well-being by providing a forum for connection, it can also be flooded with extreme, inappropriate, and harmful content, including content that may normalize self-harm, eating disorders, and other destructive behavior. Cyberbullying is also rampant, and social media can be dangerous for young people during critical stages of brain development, when identities and self-esteem are being formed. Tech companies have a vested interest in keeping users online, and some young people are more sensitive to harm and different types of content than others.
Dr. Mercy’s report did not provide guidance on what healthy use of social media looks like, nor did it condemn social media use by all young people. Rather, it concluded that there is not yet enough evidence to determine whether social media is safe enough for children and adolescents. The Surgeon General’s recommendations lack the power of law or policy but draw attention to an urgent public health problem and make recommendations on how it should be addressed.