United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy on Tuesday issued a public advisory warning young people about the dangers of using social media. In 19 pages ReportDr. Murthy notes that while the effects of social media on adolescent mental health are not fully understood, social media may benefit some users. Mental Health and Wellbeing of Children and Adolescents.”
The surgeon called on policymakers, technology companies, researchers and parents to “take urgent action” to protect against potential risks.
Why it matters: Young brains are especially susceptible to social media.
“Adolescents are not just young,” Dr. Murthy said of counseling in an interview with The New York Times. “They’re at a different stage of development, and they’re at a critical stage of brain development.”
“The report noted that frequent social media use may be associated with unique changes in the developing brain in the amygdala (important for emotional learning and behavior) and the prefrontal cortex (important for impulse control, emotional regulation, and moderation of social behavior). Sensitivity to social rewards and punishments can increase.”
The report cites that 95 percent of teens use at least one social media site, and a third said they use social media “almost constantly.” Additionally, nearly 40 percent of 8- to 12-year-olds use social media, and the minimum age requirement for most sites is 13.
Researchers are struggling to understand the impact of social media use on teen mental health. The data are not straightforward and indicate that effects can be both positive and negative. For example, social media helps some young people connect with others, find community, and express themselves.
But social media is full of “serious, inappropriate and harmful content”, including content that “normalises” self-harm, eating disorders and other destructive behaviours, the advisory noted. Cyberbullying is rampant. And increases in social media use coincide with declines in exercise, sleep and other activities considered essential to the developing brain.
Also, social media gaps may be particularly fraught for young people, the advisory added: “During adolescence, when identities and sense of self-worth are forming, brain development is particularly susceptible to social pressures, peer opinions and peer comparisons.”
Background: The increased research comes amid a mental health crisis among American youth.
The advice joins growing calls for action around teens and social media as experts examine what role it may play in the current teen mental health crisis. Earlier this month, the American Psychological Association released its first social media guidelines, recommending that parents closely monitor teens’ use and that tech companies reconsider features like endless scrolling and the “Like” button.
What’s next: The surgeon general calls for immediate action.
In consultation, Dr. Murthy expressed an “urgent need” for clarification on several research fronts. Types of harmful social media content include; whether specific neural pathways such as reward and addiction are affected; What strategies can be used to protect the mental health and well-being of children and young people?
“Our children have become unwitting participants in decades of experimentation,” Dr. Murthy wrote. “It is critical that independent researchers and technology companies work together to rapidly advance our understanding of the impact of social media on children and adolescents.”
Dr. Murthy also acknowledged that, until now, “the burden of protecting youth has fallen mainly on children, adolescents and their families.”
“There’s a lot to ask of parents — to take new technology that’s rapidly evolving and fundamentally change how kids perceive themselves” and ask parents to manage that, Dr. Murthy told the Times. “So what we need to do. We need to do in other areas where we have product safety issues, which is to set safety standards that parents can trust and that are actually enforced.”