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Surgeon General issues advisory regarding effects social media has on youths’ mental health

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Up to 95% of youth aged 13 to 17 years reported using a social media platform and more than a third said they use social media, “almost constantly,” according to a new advisory from the Surgeon General.

Surgeon General issues advisory regarding effects social media has on youths’ mental health | Image Credit: © Studio Romantic - © Studio Romantic - stock.adobe.com.

Surgeon General issues advisory regarding effects social media has on youths’ mental health | Image Credit: © Studio Romantic - © Studio Romantic - stock.adobe.com.

US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has released a new “Social Media and Youth Mental Health” advisory, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).1 This advisory is a public statement that calls for the “American people’s attention to an urgent public health issue and provides recommendations for how it should be addressed.”

According to HHS, social media use among young people is nearly universal, as up to 95% of youth aged 13 to 17 years reported using a social media platform. More than one-third said they use social media, “almost constantly.” Childhood represents a critical stage in brain development, making young people more vulnerable to the harms of social media. The Surgeon General is calling for action from policymakers, technology companies, researchers, families, and young people to better understand the full impact of social media use in this population.1

“The most common question parents ask me is, ‘is social media safe for my kids[?]’ 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,” said Murthy. “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. 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.”1

According to the advisory, there are several potential benefits of social media use among children and adolescents, including the ability to access important information and create a space for self-expression. Forming and maintaining friendships is a positive of social media in this population, as these relationships can create opportunities for positive interactions with more diverse peer groups than that are available offline. The advisory states that studies have shown social media may support the mental health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and other youths by enabling peer connection, identity development, and social support. Seven out of 10 adolescent girls of color report encountering positive or identity-affirming content related to races across social media platforms. A majority (58%) of adolescents report that social media helps them feel more accepted. Sixty-seven percent feel like they have people who can support them in difficult times, 71% feel like they have a place to show their creative side, and 80% feel they are more connected to what is happening in their friends’ lives. Further, according to the advisory, research suggests that social media- or digitally-based mental health interventions may be helpful for some youth and adolescents by promoting help-seeking behaviors or serve as a gateway to initiating mental health care.2

The potential benefits come with potential problems for excessive social media use among youth and adolescents. According to the HHS, research reveals adolescents who spend more than 3 hours per day on social media face double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes like symptoms of depression and anxiety. A survey in 2021 suggested that teenagers spend an average of 3.5 hours per day on social media. One-third or more of girls aged 11 to 15 years said they feel “addicted” to certain social media platforms, while over half of teenagers report that it would be hard to give up social media. Body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviors, social comparison, and low self-esteem, especially among adolescent girls, could also be perpetuated by social media.1

According to statistics provided in the Surgeon General’s advisory, 46% of adolescents aged 13 to 17 years said social media makes them feel worse about their body image. Forty percent said it makes them feel neither better nor worse, while 14% said it makes them feel better, respectively.2

The Surgeon General’s advisory offers recommendations that stakeholders can take to ensure children and families have the tools they need to make social media safer for youth. The advisory recommends that policymakers strengthen safety standards and limit access “in ways that make social media safer for children of all ages, better protect children’s privacy, support digital and media literacy, and fund additional research.” Technology companies can more transparently assess the impact of their products on children, and share data with independent researchers to increase the collective understanding of the kind of impact social media has. Further, the advisory calls for technology companies to make design and developmental decisions that prioritize safety and health, including protecting children’s privacy and better adhering to age minimums.1

The Surgeon General recommends that parents and caregivers make plans within their household, such as establishing tech-free zones and fostering better in-person relationships. The advisory recommends teaching children about responsible online behavior and to model that behavior and report problematic content and activity. Children and adolescents can adopt healthy practices such as limiting time on platforms and blocking unwanted content. HHS advises children to be careful what personal information is shared and to reach out if they or a friend need help or see abuse on social platforms. For researchers, the Surgeon General advises prioritizing further social media and youth mental health research that can support the standards and evaluation of best practices.1

“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,” said Sandy Chung, MD, FAAP, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “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 Surgeon General’s Advisory calls for just that approach. The American Academy of Pediatrics looks forward to working with the Surgeon General and other federal leaders on youth mental health and social media on this important work.”1

References:

1. Surgeon general issues new advisory about effects social media use has on youth mental health. HHS.gov. May 23, 2023. Accessed May 23, 2023. https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2023/05/23/surgeon-general-issues-new-advisory-about-effects-social-media-use-has-youth-mental-health.html

2. Social media and youth mental health the U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory. HHS.gov. May 23, 2023. Accessed May 23, 2023. https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/sg-youth-mental-health-social-media-advisory.pdf

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