Social media use presents a “meaningful risk of harm to youth,” according to an advisory recently released by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. In the advisory, Murthy detailed the potential dangers to childrens’ mental health and overall well-being. 

Due to a lack of solid research on the full impacts of social media, Murthy said online platforms, policymakers and parents all need to act now to protect children.

“The bottom line is we do not have enough evidence to conclude that social media is, in fact, sufficiently safe for our kids,” Murthy told The Associated Press. “And that’s really important for parents to know.”

Social Media Use by Teens

Murthy’s 25-page advisory found that 95% of 13- to 17-year-olds use social media. Other findings include:

  • Teenagers spend an average of 3.5 hours a day using social media.
  • One third of teens say they use social media “almost constantly.”
  • Children and teenagers who use social media more than three hours a day are twice as likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • One third or more of girls ages 11-15 say they feel “addicted” to social media. 

The report also exposes how current access controls to keep children off of social media aren’t working. Most websites have a minimum age requirement of 13, but data shows that almost 40% of 8- to 12-year-olds are regular social media users. 

Potential Mental Health Effects

President Joe Biden’s administration said there is an “unprecedented youth mental health crisis” in the United States. The number of children and teenagers dealing with depression and anxiety has risen by nearly 30% in recent years, with social media use being a major factor. 

According to Murthy’s advisory, the ages of 10 to 19 are a “highly sensitive period of brain development.” During those formative years, children begin forming a sense of self-worth and are more susceptible to social pressures, peer opinions and peer comparison. It’s during those years that Murthy said mental health challenges often emerge. 

The report notes that social media use can lead to a decline in satisfaction with life, especially for girls aged 11 to 13 and boys aged 14 and 15. An internal study by Facebook’s parent company, Meta, reported 14% of teenage girls said when they use Instagram their suicidal thoughts intensify, while 17% of teenage girls said it intensifies eating disorders. Another study found that reducing social media use can improve mental health.

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Surgeon General Offers Guidance

Murthy has several recommendations that may help alleviate some of the potential for mental harm to children caused by social media usage. He’s asking technology companies to enforce minimum age limits and default settings for children, and to evaluate the risks their products may have on youth. Social media companies also need to be more transparent about data shared with outside experts, he said.

Murthy wants the government to create age-appropriate health and safety standards for social media platforms. Lawmakers are being asked to create stronger health and safety standards that would include stricter privacy controls.

Here are some guidelines for parents and guardians of children:

  • Families should keep mealtimes and face-to-face gatherings free of devices.
  • Create a family media plan that includes expectations for social media use.
  • Set content boundaries.
  • Ensure that personal information isn’t being shared online.
  • Parents or guardians should model responsible social media usage.

Murthy suggests additional funding be allocated for further research to examine the impact social media has on children and teenagers.

White House Task Force

During President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address in February, he called on Congress “to strengthen privacy protections, ban targeted advertising to children, demand tech companies stop collecting personal data on our children.”

The White House is forming a task force on children and online health and safety. The group will identify potential harm created by online platforms and create a toolkit to combat any issues created by tech companies’ new products. 

The move comes after a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the number of young adults with depression more than doubled between 2011 and 2021.