The U.S. Surgeon General has issued an advisory about the effects of social media use on young people’s mental health. On May 23, Dr. Vivek Murthy‘s research showed up to 95% of young people between the ages 13-17 use social media, and more than a third of the studied teens reported they use social media “almost constantly.”
Moments after making the announcement, Murthy spoke to rolling out about the latest mental health crisis among American adolescents.
Dr. Murthy, you’ve been speaking about social media’s impact on teens’ mental health for several months. Why are you so passionate about it?
This is important to me. Not only as surgeon general but as a doctor and as a dad who cares deeply and worries a lot about the youth mental health crisis we’re living through. This is the defining public health issue of our time, youth mental health. Young people all over the country are telling us through their stories, through statistics, that they are struggling. We’ve got to step up and help, and as part of that effort we’ve launched a number of campaigns from our office, but one of them has been to look into the deeper underlying causes of what’s driving this crisis.
One of the most common questions I get around the country from parents is about social media. They ask me, “Is social media safe for my kids?” When we look at the data as we did before we issued today an advisory on social media and youth mental health, what we find are two critical things. One is that there is not sufficient evidence to say social media is sufficiently safe for our kids. But we also, in fact, find accumulating evidence that social media use is associated with harm to kids.
Teens who spend more than three hours a day on social media face double the risk of depression and anxiety symptoms. When you recognize the average amount of time that teens spend right now is three and a half hours a day, that makes this really concerning. This is why I’m so focused on this issue. We have to look under every stone and make sure we are understanding what’s driving this youth mental health crisis. Then, we’ve got to actually address it. My concern, based on the data I’ve seen, is that social media has become one of those drivers.
What steps can be taken to mitigate the harm to children?
There are certain steps we need technology companies and policymakers to take, and technology companies in particular need to design their platforms with health and safety in mind and prioritize health and well-being as an outcome. We also need technology companies to be open and transparent with the data they have on the health impact of their platforms on kids.
Because independent researchers are telling us right now that they’ve been having a hard time getting access to that data to fully understand the impact on our children.
But policymakers have a critical role here as well. They can set and establish safety standards that social media products have to meet. That will reduce the exposure for kids to harmful content like violence, sexual content, harassment and bullying, but they will also help protect them from excessive use, from the kind of features that platforms sometimes use that can manipulate children into spending unhealthy amounts of time on these platforms.