The United States Surgeon General has declared a youth mental health crisis. He says social media is a primary driver and he’s calling for immediate action. Let’s see what’s up.

When asked about the impact of social media on their body image, 46% of adolescents aged 13-17 said social media makes them feel worse…

Molly Rose Russell was 14-years-old when she died on November 21, 2017.

At the conclusion of last September’s judicial inquiry, her death was attributed to “…an act of self-harm while suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content.”

It was the first ruling of its kind.

Social media and youth mental health advisory

On May 23, 2023, the United States Department of Health and Human Services issued a news release announcing that Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy is urging action to ensure social media environments are healthy and safe.

Citing the risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents, he called on policymakers, technology companies, researchers, families, and young people to gain insight into the full impact of social media use.

The goal is to create safer and healthier online environments.

As we consider the crisis, it’s important to keep in mind that children and adolescents are in critical stages of brain development. And that makes them especially vulnerable.

The release introduces a 25-page PDF, “Surgeon General’s Advisory on Social Media and Youth Mental Health.”

Reality

Up to 95% of young people ages 13-17 report using a social media platform and more than a third say they use it “almost constantly.”

From Surgeon General Murthy

Let’s get right on it by going to the source, Surgeon General Murthy…

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.

He goes on to point out that children and adolescents are often exposed to violent and sexual content on social media, as well as bullying and harassment.

And for too many young people, hanging out on social media compromises sleep and in-person time with family and friends.

According to Murthy…

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.

Good, sounds like he means business.

The impact of social media on children and adolescents

Of course, the impact of social media on children and adolescents depends upon a number of factors…

  • Amount of time spent on platforms
  • Type of content being selected or to which they’re exposed
  • Degree to which the content disrupts health essential activities, such as sleep and physical activity
  • Cultural, historical, and socio-economic factors

No doubt, there are more.

Benefits

impact of social media on children and adolescents

Is it too much to hope for?

Can children and adolescents benefit from social media? Sure they can, as long as rules pertaining to the factors above are made – and monitored.

That’s not unreasonable, is it?

Let’s catch the view from the adolescent side of the fence. They report that social media helps them feel more accepted (58%), like they have people who can support them through tough times (67%), like they have a place to show their creative side (71%), and more connected to what’s going on in their friends’ lives (80%).

The dark side

Okay, we know social media use can be excessive and problematic for some children and adolescents. Let’s do details…

  • Recent research shows that adolescents who spend more than three hours per day on social media face double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes, such as depression and anxiety
  • Relating to the previous point, a recent survey of teenagers found that the average amount of time spent on social media is 3.5 hours a day
  • One-third or more of girls aged 11-15 say they feel “addicted” to certain social media platforms and over half of teenagers report that it would be hard to give up
  • When asked about the impact of social media on their body image, 46% of adolescents aged 13-17 said social media makes them feel worse, 40% said it makes them feel neither better nor worse, and only 14% said it makes them feel better
  • 64% of adolescents are “often” or “sometimes” exposed to hate-based content through social media
  • Studies have shown a relationship between social media use and poor sleep quality, reduced sleep duration, sleep difficulties, and depression among youth

Extremely problematic, don’t you think?

The Surgeon General’s recommendations 

The Surgeon General certainly makes the case for a major crisis. And a tip of the hat to him for suggesting ways to address it. Let’s take a look…

Policymakers

Murthy calls upon policymakers to take steps to strengthen safety standards and limit access in ways that make social media safer for children and adolescents. He also suggests funding for additional research.

Tech companies

Murthy states that tech companies can
better and more transparently assess the impact of their products on young people, as well as make design and development decisions that prioritize safety and health.

He emphasizes protecting privacy, better adherence to age minimums, and improving systems to provide effective and timely responses to complaints.

Parents and caregivers

For my money, this is where it’s at. Murthy recommends establishing tech-free zones that better foster in-person relationships, teaching kids about responsible online behavior and serving as a model, and reporting problematic content and activity.

Children and adolescents

Children and adolescents can adopt healthy practices like limiting time on platforms, blocking unwanted content, being careful about sharing personal information, and reaching out if they or a friend need help or see harassment or abuse.

Researchers

Researchers need to further prioritize social media and youth mental health work that can support the establishment of standards and evaluation of best practices to support the health of children and adolescents.

Will we pull out of it?

So what do you think? Does the Surgeon General make the case for a social media and youth mental health crisis? How do you feel about his recommendations?

Most important of all, do you think we’ll pull out of it?

My take

We’ve been in an escalating state of social media and youth mental health crisis – along with several contributing crises – for a number of years. And I wouldn’t bet the farm we’ll pull out of it.

Just a few of the things on my mind…

  • I wrote the first of six Chipur articles on social media’s negative impact upon mental health, most backed by research, 11 years ago. And here we are.
  • During last year’s judicial inquest into Molly Russell’s death, representatives of the two platforms involved – Pinterest and Instagram (Meta – also owns Facebook) were required to give in-person testimony under oath. That was a first, by the way. The Pinterest rep was contrite. The Meta rep was defiant. Lots of money and power in the equation.
  • Policymakers and researchers go with the dough. Reference the previous point.
  • I wonder if we’re past the point of no return when it comes to the involvement of parents and caregivers – children and adolescents. I mean, there are way too many seductive hooks in the world of social media. And the frantic pace of life makes it hard to slow down, consider all the angles, and make adjustments. Our biggest hope are the children, but parents, older siblings, adult family members, and caregivers need to amp up the modeling and guidance.

Pessimistic, I know. Still, I really do believe hope springs eternal.

The chips are down, the stakes are high

The United States Surgeon General has declared a youth mental health crisis. Social media is a primary driver and immediate action is required.

The chips are down, the stakes are high. Will we answer the call?

The May 23, 2023 news release. The Surgeon General’s advisory PDF: Social Media and Youth Mental Health

I encourage you to learn more about the Molly Russell saga: The truth about social media and teenage suicide: The Molly Russell story

Looking for more Chipur mood and anxiety info and inspiration articles? Peruse the titles.

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