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Surgeon General warns social media poses risks to kids, and health groups back him up

Article

Vivek Murthy issued an advisory warning of the ‘profound risk’ to the mental health of children and teens, and several leading medical organizations share those concerns.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy says the most common question he hears from parents centers on social media, and if it’s safe for those kids.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory Tuesday about the potential harms of social media to the mental health of kids and teens. (Photo: Surgeon General's office)

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory Tuesday about the potential harms of social media to the mental health of kids and teens. (Photo: Surgeon General's office)

Murthy says that drove him to issue an advisory about the risks of social media to the mental health of kids and teens. Several leading healthcare organizations issued statements of support for the advisory.

In a statement, Murthy says there’s “growing evidence that social media use is associated with harm to young people’s mental health.”

“Children are exposed to harmful content on social media, ranging from violent and sexual content, to bullying and harassment. And for too many children, social media use is compromising their sleep and valuable in-person time with family and friends,” Murthy said in his statement. “We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis, and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis – one that we must urgently address.”

Nearly all teenagers are engaging on some social media platforms. As many as 95% of teens are on social media, with about a third saying they are on social media almost constantly, the surgeon general’s office says.

The statement comes amid growing concern from healthcare leaders that social media can be damaging to young people, due to the barrage of violent content, sexual images, and the potential for kids to suffer from low self-esteem. The advisory cites the concern that social media is having an impact on kids’ sleep habits and physical activity.

In some cases, kids have died by suicide or engaged in self-harm at least in part due to content on social media, the advisory warns.

While Murthy acknowledges more research is needed to assess the impact of social media on adolescents, healthcare leaders say more teens and children are seeking treatment for mental health reasons. Hospitals are seeing more teens in emergency departments for mental health emergencies. ​​The number of mental health hospitalizations more than doubled from 2016 to 2022, according to a report released today by Clarify Health.

The American Psychological Association issued guidelines this month regarding the use of social media by adolescents.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says it’s looking forward to working with the surgeon general’s office to help keep kids safe on social media.

“Today’s children and teens do not know a world without digital technology, but the digital world wasn’t built with children’s healthy mental development in mind,” Sandy Chung, the academy’s president, said in a statement. “We need an approach to help children both on and offline that meets each child where they are while also working to make the digital spaces they inhabit safer and healthier.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics has established a Center of Excellence on Social Media and Youth Mental Health, which aims to encourage the healthy use of social media.

Jack Resneck Jr., president of the American Medical Association, issued a statement saying that while social media offers some positive benefits, more study is needed on its harmful effects.

"With near universal social media use by America’s young people, these apps and sites introduce profound risk and mental health harms in ways we are only now beginning to fully understand. As physicians, we see firsthand the impact of social media, particularly during adolescence – a critical period of brain development," Resneck said in the statement.

The American Psychiatric Association, the American Acadmey of Family Physicians, and the American Public Health Association also issued statements supporting the surgeon general's warning.

The surgeon general’s advisory outlines suggestions for reducing the risk of harms to kids.

Tech companies

The surgeon general’s advisory urges tech companies to assess the impact of social media content on teens and kids and to take active steps to prevent misuse. The advisory also suggests companies should “avoid design features that attempt to maximize time, attention, and engagement.” Tech companies should also be required to disclose the health impact of their platforms, the advisory states.

Families

Families should also set out guidelines on the use of social media in the home, including screen time, encourage kids to foster in-person friendships, and report cyberbullying or abusive behavior. Parents can also play a role by modeling good practices regarding their use of social media and their time spent online, the advisory states.

Policymakers

Governments, health experts and tech companies should collaborate on ways to strengthen protection for kids on social media, develop age-appropriate safety standards, and require higher standards of data privacy for children and teens. The surgeon general also suggests more funding should be directed to research the harms and benefits of social media.


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