U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory Tuesday declaring what many families already know to be true: Social media use may cause harm to children and adolescents.
Murthy’s 19-page advisory outlines the ways in which social media can expose children to violence, sexual and hate-based content, disordered eating, bullying, and predatory and self-harming behaviors. Though it’s difficult to pinpoint whether these types of exposures lead to poor mental health, the advisory lists numerous studies that demonstrate an association between the two experiences.
“Nearly every teenager in America uses social media, and yet we do not have enough evidence to conclude that it is sufficiently safe for them,” says the advisory. “Our children have become unknowing participants in a decades-long experiment.”
While noting the good that can come from youth connecting with peers, learning more about their interests, and accessing spaces for self-expression, the report underscores potential harms. It specifically calls on technology companies and policymakers to develop solutions, rather than placing the burden of ensuring safety on children and their parents.
The recommendations for technology companies include: the creation of systems that efficiently address complaints from young users, families, and educators; use of default settings for children that ensure the highest safety and privacy standards; and implementation of platform design and algorithms that “prioritize health and safety.”
Policymakers are charged with requiring a higher data privacy standard for children; ensuring companies share the health impacts of their products with researchers and the public; and pursuing policies that limit access to social media by strengthening and enforcing age minimums, among other recommendations.
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The advisory is the latest effort to draw attention to worsening mental health amongst adolescents and teens. Earlier this month, the American Psychological Association issued new guidelines for youth social media use that focused on preventing harm.
In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published data showing that, in 2021, teen girls experienced record levels of sexual violence and sadness, and that three quarters of LGBQ+ teens expressed persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, with nearly one in four LGBQ+ teens reporting a suicide attempt.
Murthy issued a separate advisory in 2021 on protecting youth mental health, which described the challenges that today’s young people face as “unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate.”
“We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis,” Murthy said in a statement regarding his latest advisory, “and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis — one that we must urgently address.”
If you’re feeling suicidal or experiencing a mental health crisis, please talk to somebody. You can reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988; the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860; or the Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. Text “START” to Crisis Text Line at 741-741. Contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m. ET, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you don’t like the phone, consider using the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline Chat at crisischat.org. Here is a list of international resources.