In a landmark public health advisory, the US Surgeon General issued a stark warning about the risks of social media on young people’s mental health.
“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,” the nation’s top health official, Dr. Vivek Murthy, wrote in the May 2023 report. “Our children have become unknowing participants in a decades-long experiment.”
Though not enshrined as law or policy, the 25-page report is meant to shift the national conversation about an urgent public health issue and bring clarity to the forefront, as seen with the warnings from past surgeon generals about cigarettes in the 1960s and the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. “Advisories are reserved for significant public health challenges that require the nation’s immediate awareness and action,” Dr. Murthy wrote. Academic studies have shown that comprehensive tobacco regulations employed since the 60s, for example, have effectively prevented youth smoking initiation and reduced tobacco use among young people. Could we do the same for social media?
For parents, the advisory is a wake-up call. Following on the heels of the American Psychology Association’s first-ever guidelines on social media use in teens, the two recent public health warnings illuminate what may have been lurking in the shadows all along, but that perhaps we didn’t want to face. As stated in the Surgeon General’s report, though there may be some benefits of social media usage among teens, there is a simultaneous real and “profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents” that we can no longer ignore.
And though the Surgeon General’s warning distinctly calls out policymakers and tech companies to take “immediate action,” parents are also included in that list. It’s a heavy burden to bear, Dr. Murthy admitted to The New York Times. “That’s a lot to ask of parents, to take a new technology that’s rapidly evolving and that fundamentally changes how kids perceive themselves,” Dr. Murthy said. “So 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.”
Changing the conversation around social media usage
As seen with the past Surgeon General’s warning on cigarettes, the advisory on social media and youth mental health marks a definitive sea change in public health—and we should treat it as such.
But will it be enough to change the conversation? Since the advisory on smoking was released in the 60s, age restrictions, warning labels and disclaimers, public awareness campaigns, collaboration with industry stakeholders and evidence-based policymaking have all contributed to significant harm reduction, especially for vulnerable populations such as kids and teens. Granted, it’s been 60 years since, but the success of tobacco interventions are a hopeful harbinger of how public health advisories can pave the way for regulation that impacts behavior change.
When it comes to social media usage among kids and teens, Dr. Murthy readily admits that we still don’t have enough data—but the data we do have is concerning.
“The most common question parents ask me is, ‘is social media safe for my kids’?” Dr. Murthy tells Motherly in an interview. “The answer is that we don’t have enough evidence to say it’s safe, and in fact, there is growing evidence that social media use is associated with harm to young people’s mental health.”
We don’t have the luxury of waiting years for more research to come to light about the health effects of these digital platforms on our kids’ mental health. According to the advisory, up to 95% of youth between the ages of 13 and 17 report using a social media platform, with more than one-third saying they use social media “almost constantly.” Though the most common minimum age required for social media platforms is 13, nearly 40% of US children between the ages of 8 and 12 use social media.
When they choose a username, our kids shouldn’t be unwittingly signing themselves up for a large-scale social experiment.
We must enact plans within our own families to promote a healthy relationship with social media—the advisory points to The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)’s newly updated Family Media Plan tool—but additionally, we need increased regulation at the corporate and policy level to make these platforms safer.
In March, Utah became the first state to prohibit social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook from allowing users under 18 to have accounts without parental or guardian consent.
“If a parent wants to give their kids free rein online, under our bill they are going to have the ability to do that,” said Michael K. McKell, a Republican member of the Utah Senate who sponsored the bill, to The Times. “But we want parents to be involved in the process, and we’re not going to apologize for that.”
What parents can do with the information on social media and youth mental health
“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,” AAP President Sandy L. Chung, M.D., FAAP, said in a press release. “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 advisory outlines clear recommendations for parents and caregivers, such as establishing tech-free zones to support in-person relationships, teaching kids about responsible online behavior and modeling that behavior, and reporting problematic content and activity.
It’s a given that parents must serve as the gatekeepers for their kids’ social media use. It’s perhaps not that different from preparing your child for the world at large in other ways, notes Anna B. Tanner, MD, FAAP, FSAHM, CEDS-S, vice president of Child and Adolescent Medicine with Veritas Collaborative and the Emily Program, in a previous interview with Motherly. “Parents understand that many of the tasks their adolescent children must master include some danger of harm, such as driving. With individualized and developmentally appropriate supervision, this potential for harm may be mitigated but will never be completely eliminated.”
But it still feels like parents are left to their own devices when it comes to preparing their kids for using these ever-changing platforms. There’s no established manual or driver’s ed class for social media use. Teaching media and digital literacy in schools may help take some of the onus off parents, but we can’t do this in a vacuum. It must come down to collaboration with tech companies to strengthen protections for young people and oversight from policymakers to ensure that regulations are being implemented.
“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,” Dr. Murthy wrote. We don’t have a moment to waste.