Social media could harm youth mental health, U.S. Surgeon General warns

May 25, 2023 - 4:27 PM
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A blue verification badge and the logos of Facebook and Instagram are seen in this picture illustration taken January 19, 2023. (Reuters/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo)

Social media can profoundly harm the mental health of youth, particularly adolescent girls, the U.S. Surgeon General warned in an advisory on Tuesday, and he called for safeguards from tech companies for children who are at critical stages of brain development.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said that while social media offers some benefits, there are “ample indicators that social media could also harm children’s well-being.”

“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,” Murthy said.

Social media use may cause and perpetuate body image issues, affect eating behaviors and sleep quality, and lead to social comparison and low self-esteem, especially among adolescent girls, the advisory said, citing responses from a survey conducted among adolescents.

Adolescents who spend more than three hours per day on social media face double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes, such as symptoms of depression and anxiety, according to the advisory.

Most adolescents say social media helps them feel more accepted, more supported during tough times, more connected to their friends, and more creative, the advisory also said.

It said policymakers should strengthen safety standards in ways that enhance those benefits for children of all ages, while noting that inappropriate and harmful content continues to be easily and widely accessible to children.

Tech companies should adhere to age limits to control access to social media platforms, and be transparent about data regarding the impact of their products on children, the advisory urges.

Algorithms and platform design should seek to maximize the potential benefits of social media instead of features designed to make users spend more time on them, it said.

“The first principle of healthcare is to do no harm – that’s the same standard we need to start holding social media platforms to,” said Saul Levin, CEO of the American Psychiatric Association.

The report includes suggestions for what parents, tech companies, as well as children and adolescents, can do to avoid dangerous pitfalls and make the social media experience more positive. They include creation of a family media plan, encouraging of in-person friendships, talking to children about how they spend their time online, and encouraging them to seek help should they need it.

It included a reminder of the new 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline “if you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis.”

—Reporting by Mariam Sunny in Bengaluru; Editing by Nancy Lapid and Bill Berkrot.