U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy put out an official warning to parents on May 23: Social media poses “a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being” of kids.
It’s not a new warning. A growing body of research has connected social media use with increased depression and anxiety in kids, especially adolescent girls. (See our recent article “Navigating childhood friendships in a digital world.” But, at least one local expert on kids and screen time says the warning from the country’s top doctor strengthens the message.
An important voice
According to the Surgeon General’s new report — “Social Media and Youth Mental Health: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory” — nearly all 13- to 17-year-olds use social media. One in three teens say they use the platforms “almost constantly,” according to the advisory. The report also noted that as many as 40% of kids ages 8 to 12 are also on social media. As the country’s top doctor, Murthy’s voice on this issue is substantial.
Adolescence and childhood represent critical stages in brain development that can make young people more vulnerable to harm from social media. That’s why Murthy’s advisory calls for “urgent action” by policymakers, technology companies, researchers, families, and kids. It is critical, the report said, that all these groups better understand and help minimize the harmful impacts of social media and work together toward healthier online environments for children.
‘Is social media safe for my kids?’
“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,” said Murthy in a release of the report. “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. 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.”
Less is more
Seattle’s Emily Cherkin is the founder of The Screentime Consultant and works with parents, companies, and schools to help them become more intentional about the use of technology. She says Murthy’s advisory echoes what she’s been saying to parents and others for years:
“I believe in this: 1. Less is more. 2. Later is better. 3. Relationships before screens.” said Cherkin. Her book, “The Screentime Solution: A Judgment-Free Guide to Becoming a Tech-Intentional Family,” will be available in January.
“I love that the Surgeon General puts lawmakers and tech companies at the top of the list for solutions,” Cherkin said. “Until Big Tech is forced to change their business model, they won’t — it’s too profitable not to. So it’s good that there is legislative pressure.”
Cherkin wholeheartedly agrees with Murthy’s admonition that “Children and adolescents don’t have the luxury of years to wait for these changes to be made.”
“That means that much of the burden still falls on parents,” said Cherkin. “It’s not parents’ fault, but it is our job. That starts with looking at our own screen use (as parents) and then focusing on the relationships we have with our children because it is only with that piece in place can we affect meaningful change.”
Murthy’s advisory notes that the harmful potential to children using social media depends on many factors, including the platform, the type of content in it, the amount of time kids spend on social media, and how much viewing replaces essential life activities like in-person and physical activities.
Factors in impact
The report confirms that kids are impacted by social media in different ways, and impacts are influenced by cultural, historical, and socio-economic factors. 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.
What is the potential harm?
Social media may also perpetuate body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviors, social comparison, and low self-esteem, especially among adolescent girls. One-third or more of girls aged 11-15 say they feel “addicted” to certain social media platforms and over half of teenagers report that it would be hard to give up social media. When asked about the impact of social media on their body image, 46% of adolescents aged 13-17 said social media makes them feel worse, 40% said it makes them feel neither better nor worse, and only 14% said it makes them feel better. Additionally, 64% of adolescents are “often” or “sometimes” exposed to hate-based content through social media. Studies have also shown a relationship between social media use and poor sleep quality, reduced sleep duration, sleep difficulties, and depression among youth.
At the same time, the report also cites some benefits of social media use. For example, 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%).
The advisory offers several recommendations, including:
- Policymakers should take steps 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.
- Tech companies need to share what they know about the potential impacts of their products on children and develop technologies that prioritize safety and health – including protecting children’s privacy, better adhering to age minimums, and providing effective and timely responses to complaints.
- Parents and caregivers should consider tech-free zones that better foster in-person relationships, teach kids about responsible online behavior and model that behavior, and report problematic content and activity.
- Children and adolescents need to adopt healthy practices like limiting time on platforms, blocking unwanted content, being careful about sharing personal information, and reaching out if they or a friend need help or see harassment or abuse on the platforms.
Start the change at home
Cherkin advised parents to start that work without delay.
“One thing parents can start doing today is “living your life out loud.” This means narrating what you (as a parent) do with your screens. For example ‘I’m looking up a recipe, I’m checking the weather, I’m scrolling through Instagram.’ This brings awareness to all members of a family about how screens are used — sometimes as a tool, but often as a distraction or entertainment for ourselves as adults. It also forces parents to look at what we’re modeling. If we scroll while talking to our kids, then we shouldn’t expect they will do anything differently.”
Cherkin says Murthy’s report is an important statement and leaves her feeling optimistic.
“I remain hopeful at the potential bipartisan nature of this issue,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be great if our social fabric starts to mend through our shared concerns about Big Tech’s influence on our children?”
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