US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has issued a new public advisory warning that “there are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”
Although the report says social media can provide benefits to younger users and cautions that more research is needed to fully understand its impact, it says America needs to “urgently take action to create safe and healthy digital environments that minimize harm and safeguard children’s and adolescents’ mental health and well-being during critical stages of development.”
The report notes that advisories from the Surgeon General like the one issued today represent an attempt to call attention to “an urgent public health issue” and recommend how it could be tackled. Axios notes that Murthy’s recommendations aren’t binding, but that they can shift public debate and provide evidence to lawmakers and regulators to help them to begin addressing an issue.
The advisory comes as attempts to make social media safer for children and teenagers are gathering pace in the US and around the world with legislation such as the UK’s Online Safety Bill. The Surgeon General has previously called youth mental health “the defining public health issue of our time,” according to NBC News. “Adolescents are not just smaller adults,” Murthy told The New York Times in an interview. “They’re in a different phase of development, and they’re in a critical phase of brain development.”
The report says “a highly sensitive period of brain development” happens between the ages of 10 and 19, coinciding with a period when up to 95 percent of 13 to 17 year olds and nearly 40 percent of 8 to 12 year olds are using social media. But the Advisory notes that frequent use of such platforms can impact the brain development, affecting areas associated with emotional learning, impulse control, and social behavior. Murthy has previously said he believes even 13 years old is “too early” for children to be using social media.
The Advisory calls attention to a number of interrelated harms that social media may be contributing to. It calls attention to “extreme, inappropriate, and harmful content” that it says “continues to be easily and widely accessible by children and adolescents,” and also cites studies suggesting a link between high usage of social media and symptoms of depression and anxiety.
However, the advisory also outlines several potential benefits of social media, particularly for marginalized groups. “Studies have shown that social media may support the mental health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, transgender, queer, intersex and other youths by enabling peer connection, identity development and management, and social support,” the report says, noting that online communities can also provide support for youths from racial and ethnic minorities.
“Different children and adolescents are affected by social media in different ways, based on their individual strengths and vulnerabilities, and based on cultural, historical, and socio-economic factors,” the report notes. “There is broad agreement among the scientific community that social media has the potential to both benefit and harm children and adolescents.”
The Advisory offers recommendations for policymakers, technology companies, and researchers on how the harms it cites could be addressed going forward. A common thread among them is to fund and enable more research into the impacts of social media usage, and for social media companies themselves to be more transparent in sharing data with outside experts. But there are also recommendations for lawmakers to develop stronger health and safety standards for social media products, and introduce stricter data privacy controls. Technology companies themselves, meanwhile, are urged to assess the risks their products might pose and attempt to minimize them.
Finally, although the report notes that “the onus of mitigating the potential harms of social media should not be placed solely on the shoulders” of either parents and caregivers or children themselves, it also offers some advice on how to foster a healthier relationship with social media by, for example, reporting cyberbullying and online abuse or establishing boundaries between online and offline activities.
“What kids are experiencing today on social media is unlike anything prior generations have had to contend with,” Murthy said in an interview with Axios.
“We’ve got to do what we do in other areas where we have product safety issues, which is to set in place safety standards that parents can rely on, that are actually enforced,” he told the NYT.