The Surgeon General Issues an Urgent New Advisory on the Harmful Effects of Social Media on Young People
United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy has issued an urgent public advisory describing the risks of social media for young people and concluding that we lack sufficient evidence that social media is safe. He is urging technology companies, research institutions, lawmakers, and families to take immediate steps to mitigate the harmful effects of social media on today’s youth.
What You’ll Learn
On May 23, 2023, the United States Surgeon General issued a public advisory urging the public to take measures to protect children and adolescents from the potentially harmful effects of social media.
The advisory states what the Social Media Victims Law Center has been saying for years: “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.”
Although a public advisory by the Surgeon General does not carry the weight of law, it is an important milestone in the national and international conversation about the harmful effects of social media on an entire generation of young people.
Similar advisories have historically made everyday products safer, including toys, food, and automobiles. A Surgeon General advisory started the national conversation about the dangers of smoking as far back as the 1960s, raising awareness and leading to the required warnings on every pack of cigarettes sold in the United States today.
Nearly every product used and sold today must meet safety standards before making it available to the public. The same cannot be said of social media products.
Our hope at the Social Media Victim’s Law Center is that the advisory will sufficiently raise the public alarm to result in swift, effective action culminating in regulations making social media safer, with a shift in technology companies’ lack of transparency and longstanding pattern of prioritizing profits over safety.
The Surgeon General’s Position on The Scientific Evidence of Social Media’s Harmful Effects
The Surgeon General has determined that we do not have sufficient evidence to determine whether social media is safe for youth. According to the advisory, social media has the potential for good and harm. Whether it results in harm depends on several factors related to the vulnerabilities of each young user and the user’s pattern of social media use, including the following:
- The amount of time spent using social media
- The type of content the user sees
- The activities and interactions a user experiences on social media
- The extent to which the user’s social media use disrupts healthy activities
Brain Development and Social Media
During the pre-teen and adolescent years, the brain’s emotional and impulse control centers are forming. Risk-taking is at its peak, and young people are especially vulnerable to mental health challenges. Feelings of well-being can fluctuate daily, and it is during this period that depression often emerges.
This is when the sense of self forms, and peer relationships become highly prioritized. The brain reward system is also especially sensitive, and social rewards and punishments can activate that system. Social media’s social and interactive aspects can cause an excessive cycle of social rewards and dopamine release, resulting in social media addiction.
Social Media and Happiness
Adolescent social media use is associated with decreased life satisfaction for girls ages 11 to 13 and boys ages 14 to 15.
The Surgeon General cited studies showing marked declines in mental health when social media use began. The studies found mental health benefits in as little as three weeks when social media use was limited to 30 minutes per day, including significant decreases in the severity of depression.
An even greater effect was observed when social media platforms were deactivated for four weeks. Young people in the study reported greater feelings of happiness and lower depression and anxiety.
The Observable Negative Effects of Social Media
Children experience negative effects due to the type of content they view and the time they spend on social media. Harmful content includes sexually explicit content, hateful content, and content that glorifies unhealthy behaviors. The more frequently harmful content is viewed, the more it becomes normalized.
Youth are regularly exposed to the following types of content on social media, according to the advisory:
- Live suicides
- Live depictions of self-harm, such as cutting
- Partial self-axphyxiation
- Hate-based content
- Sexually explicit content
The Surgeon General has found that a majority of parents of adolescents are somewhat, very, or extremely worried that their children’s social media use may cause the following:
These concerns are not without merit. According to the advisory, 14-year-olds with higher levels of social media use were significantly more likely to experience the following, with a more pronounced effect on girls:
Social Comparison and Low Self-Esteem
Nearly half of youth ages 13-17 say social media makes them feel worse about their bodies. This stems from social comparison, which can also lead to the following:
- Body dissatisfaction
- Disordered eating
Parental Consent Requirements Excessive and Problematic Use
Social media use can overstimulate the brain’s reward center and trigger addiction, with similar brain structure changes seen in people with substance use and gambling addictions. According to the advisory, 31 percent of social media use may result from habit formation and self-control challenges in controlling use.
The average time spent on social media is three-and-a-half hours per day. Approximately 25 percent of youth spend five or more hours on social media daily, and one in seven spends seven or more hours per day.
This is not entirely the fault of users. In an interview with CNN, the Surgeon General said the best designers in the world create design media programs to maximize the time users spend on the platforms. Telling children to use the force of their willpower to resist spending excessive time on social media is pitting them against the world’s best designers, which is an unfair fight.
Social media platforms use the following mechanisms to maximize users’ time on the platforms:
- Push notifications
- Neverending scrolling
- Social rewards such as likes, comments, and shares
- Algorithms that utilize user data to select engaging content to keep users online as long as possible
Excessive time on social media disrupts important health-promoting habits such as sleep, exercise, and cultivating in-person relationships. Excessive social media use has been linked to the following negative effects:
Poor sleep quality in children and teens has been linked to depression, suicidal thoughts, and impairments in neurological development. Fear of missing out has been linked to depression, anxiety, and neuroticism.
The Surgeon General’s Recommendations
The Surgeon General is seeking answers to the following questions:
- How does social media use impact a child or teen’s development?
- How do digital social interactions impact health compared to in-person interactions?
- Does social media impact life satisfaction?
- Do the designs and features of social media affect dopamine pathways leading to addiction?
- What types of content and how much of it generates the most harm?
- What are the benefits of social media, and who benefits from it?
- How can we protect the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents who use social media?
The Surgeon General urges researchers and social media companies to work together to answer these questions.
The Surgeon General Urges Immediate Action
According to the advisory, “At a moment when we are experiencing a national youth mental health crisis, now is the time to act swiftly and decisively to protect children and adolescents from risk of harm.”
Parents are facing extreme challenges managing their children’s social media use. While they acknowledge they are responsible for protecting their children from inappropriate online content, the Surgeon General says that reducing the risk of harm cannot fall squarely on the parents.
Nearly 80 percent of parents agree that technology companies also share the responsibility to protect children from inappropriate content on their platforms.
The Surgeon General is urging the American public to do the following:
- Acknowledge the growing body of evidence about the harmful effects of social media
- Increase our collective understanding of the risks of using social media
- Take urgent action to create safe and healthy online environments that do not harm the mental health of children and teens during important stages of brain development
- Consider the highly sensitive stage of brain development of youth ages 10 to 19 when assessing the risks associated with social media
According to the Surgeon General, a proactive, multifaceted approach is required in which lawmakers, social media companies, researchers, families, and youth work together to maximize the benefits of social media while minimizing harm.
The Role of Policymakers
Policymakers are urged to strengthen protections for children online by doing the following:
- Implementing age-appropriate health and safety standards regarding content that is displayed to youth
- Requiring a higher standard of privacy for children
- Pursuing policies that further limit access to social media, such as enforcing age minimums
- Requiring social media platforms to share safety research with independent research institutions
- Including education in schools about responsible social media use and how to recover from and manage negative experiences
- Increasing funding for research
- Partnering with the global community to develop strategies to make social media safer for young people.
In his interview with CNN, the Surgeon General stated that he believes 13 is too young for teens to join social media due to their stage of brain development.
The Role of Technology Companies
The Surgeon General urges social media companies to do the following to increase the safety of their platforms:
- Facilitate transparent independent assessments of the impact of their platforms on young people, and share data with independent researchers
- Assume responsibility for the impacts of their platforms on children, and take active steps to prevent misuse
- Establish scientific advisory committees to assist with approaches to making social media safer
- Prioritize safety when designing platforms
- Create an effective system for managing complaints from users, families, and educators
The Role of Researchers
Research has played an essential role in discovering the harmful aspects of social media, and it can also be valuable in identifying solutions to make it safer for youth. The Surgeon General urges researchers to do the following:
- Rigorously evaluate social media’s impacts based on user age, stage of development, and other factors
- Assess the benefits and risks of social media use, both short-term and long-term
- Establish standardized definitions related to social media use and harm
- Evaluate best practices for social media use
- Collaborate with community and global partners to widen the available body of research
The Role of Families
The Surgeon General urges every family to create a family media plan that includes reasonable restrictions on screen time, content restrictions, and disclosures of personal information. In addition, families should do the following:
- Create tech-free zones, such as meal times and the hour before bedtime when phone and screen time are restricted
- Encourage in-person interactions and relationships
- Model responsible social media behavior
- Teach kids at an early age how to be safe and responsible with technology
- Report online cyberbullying, abuse, and exploitation to the appropriate authorities, such as law enforcement.
- Network with other parents to develop support programs and collectively push for social media policies that keep kids safe.
What Children and Adolescents Can Do
Children and adolescents should make a conscious effort to adopt healthy technology habits and partner with their parents, educators, and communities to stay safe online by doing the following:
- Reach out for help when needed
- Create boundaries to balance online and offline activities
- Develop healthy habits, such as tracking time spent online and blocking unwelcome contacts and content
- Be selective about sharing personal information
- Report online harassment or abuse, whether it happens to you or someone else
- Don’t participate in online harassment or abuse
What the Social Media Victims Law Center Is Doing
We provide education and resources to help families protect their children and hold social media companies accountable for prioritizing profits over safety.
Social media has become a significant force in modern living, and we cannot make it go away. This is why we work hard to hold social media companies accountable and push policymakers to regulate social media to make it safer for everyone.
If social media use has harmed you or your loved one, we may be able to help. Contact us today for a free case evaluation.
Matthew P. Bergman
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