The use of social media by children and teens could pose a “profound risk of harm” to their mental health and well-being, the US surgeon general has warned.
IN new clinic published on Tuesday, Dr. Vivek Murthy calls on tech companies, policy makers and parents to take “immediate action to protect children now”. He says that in the absence of solid independent research, it is impossible to say whether social media is safe for children and young people.
“The bottom line is that we don’t have enough evidence to say that social media is actually safe enough for our children. And that’s really important for parents to know,” Murthy told the Associated Press.
The 25-page guide, developed as part of the Surgeon General’s ongoing investigation into what he considers a full-blown adolescent mental health crisis, points to the ubiquitous use of social media by young people. As many as 95% of Americans aged 13 to 17 use a social media platform, and more than a third say they do so “almost constantly.”
The report shows how current child access controls are not working. While most sites use a minimum age of 13, nearly 40% of children between the ages of 8 and 12 are regular users.
The Surgeon General’s warning came from the White House post your own ad on Tuesday about what has been called an “unprecedented youth mental health crisis” in the US. The number of children and teens struggling with depression and anxiety has increased by almost 30% in recent years, and social media has been a clear factor.
The White House creates a new task force on children and online health and safety. It would be tasked with identifying the potential harm posed by online platforms and developing a toolkit to combat problems faced by tech companies developing new products.
Concerns about the impact of popular online apps on children have been growing in recent years. In 2021, whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed that Facebook and Instagram knew they were directing young users to harmful content, including material that promoted anorexia – and that they were clearly targeting children under 13.
One internal study by Facebook’s parent company, Meta, found that 14% of teenage girls said their suicidal thoughts increased while using Instagram, and 17% of teenage girls said it exacerbated eating disorders.
In the aftermath of Haugen’s revelations, Meta abandoned plans to launch a children’s version of Instagram.
Murthy told the AP: “I realize that tech companies have taken steps to make their platforms healthier and safer, but that’s just not enough.”
His advice highlights the critical nature of adolescence in human brain development, which makes children between the ages of 10 and 19 highly vulnerable to peer pressure. It is during these years that an individual’s self-esteem is formed and mental health problems such as depression often arise.
The report says social media use predicts a decline in life satisfaction, especially for girls aged 11 to 13 and boys aged 14 and 15.
Access to the app has positive benefits, says Murthy, including providing community and contact with others who share similar interests or identities. This can be especially valuable for LGBTQ+ youth, who can easily find their way around.
Seven out of 10 adolescent girls of color said they find positive and affirming content this way. Across all user groups, the majority of American teens say social media helps them feel more accepted and supported during tough times.
But such positive indicators are currently overshadowed by risk factors, the surgeon general warns. A long-term study of 12-15-year-olds found that teens who spend more than three hours a day on social media are twice as likely to experience mental health problems, including depression and anxiety.
Data from 2021 suggests that the current average for this age group is 3.5 hours a day.
Excessive use of social media, which can result in compulsive or uncontrollable behaviors, can lead to sleep problems, which in turn can alter the neurological development of an adolescent’s brain. Depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts may occur, according to the clinic.
Murthy calls on tech companies to be more open to society and to prioritize the health and safety of their young users when creating new products. He also has words for parents.
“For any family, stopping a child from using social media may not be feasible or may be beneficial,” he told the AP. “But setting boundaries around the use of social media in your child’s life so that there are times and spaces that are protected, tech-free can be really helpful.”