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Surgeon general fears 'social media is an important driver' of youth mental health crisis

FILE - A girl looks at her phone in a 2019 file photo. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
FILE - A girl looks at her phone in a 2019 file photo. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
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U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory Tuesday to call attention to the potential dangers of social media use for children and teens.

He called on policymakers, social media companies and others to take immediate action to make online spaces safer for young people, while highlighting the need for more research into social media’s effects.

"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 in a news release.

Parents, lawmakers and various advocacy groups have voiced concerns over how social media impacts young users.

And social media use by teens is “nearly universal,” the surgeon general’s report says.

The Pew Research Center found that majorities of teens report using YouTube, TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat.

YouTube is the most used, 95%, and has the highest share of daily users, 77%.

Half or more of teens also say they use TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat daily.

The surgeon general’s advisory comes on the heels of the American Psychological Association issuing its own set of recommendations for safeguarding children and teens from the ill effects of social media use.

“I think the surgeon general took a really important step in issuing the advisory,” said Dr. Laura Erickson-Schroth, the chief medical officer at The Jed Foundation (JED), a nonprofit organization focused on youth mental health and suicide prevention.

Erickson-Schroth said she agrees with the positions taken in this advisory by the surgeon general, who can help “awaken our country” to these important issues.

“He says that social media presents a meaningful risk of harm to youth while also providing benefits, and I agree with that,” Erickson-Schroth said.

“Often, social media offers ways for young people to find connection. And this advisory highlights how those platforms can provide that connection to many young people who have a hard time finding it elsewhere,” she said. “So, that includes LGBTQ young people (and) youth of color. But there is also a risk of harm to mental health, and he makes important recommendations for policymakers, for technology companies, (and) for researchers.”

Erickson-Schroth said she’s optimistic that this advisory will make a difference. But it’s important that young people have a seat at the table, she said.

The surgeon general’s new report says we don’t have enough evidence to determine if social media is sufficiently safe for young people.

His report notes the influence of social media isn’t the same for every child. Their experiences will differ based on many factors, including their maturity, home environment and social circumstances.

But ages 10 to 19 are a highly sensitive period of brain development, with risk-taking behaviors peaking and the greatest fluctuations in feelings of well-being.

Brain development is especially susceptible to social pressures, peer opinions and peer comparison, according to the advisory.

The report cites research that shows teens spend an average of 3.5 hours a day on social media, and those who spend more than 3 hours a day on social media face double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes, including symptoms of depression and anxiety.

There are noted benefits of social media, which is seen as an outlet for self-expression, community and important information.

Common Sense Media recently surveyed more than 1,300 girls and found social media to be a mixed bag, with certain common features taking more blame than any one platform for negative experiences.

But the Pew Research Center found that more than half of teens say it would be difficult for them to give up social media. And about a third of teens feel that they spend too much time on social media.

The surgeon general is advocating for a “safety-first approach” for social media, pointing to the ways toys, cars and medications are regulated to protect children.

The new report contends that children have become unknowing participants in a decades-long experiment. And they don’t have the luxury of waiting years until we know the full extent of social media’s impact before acting, according to the report.

The surgeon general offered action items for policymakers, social media companies, parents, researchers and children themselves.

Policymakers should strengthen protections and develop age-appropriate health and safety standards for technology platforms, according to the advisory.

They should require a higher standard of data privacy for children, and they should strengthen and enforce age minimums, the report states.

The report also calls for the development and implementation of digital and media literacy curricula in schools.

The advisory calls on social media companies to be more transparent and conduct independent assessments of the impacts their products have on young people.

The companies need to take steps to prevent misuse, prioritize user health and safety in their feature designs, and be more responsive to user feedback on harmful content, according to the advisory.

Researchers should make understanding the various impacts of social media a priority, the report says.

Parents and children are advised to establish device-free times, including dinner and before bedtime.

Parents should model responsible social media behavior and create a family media plan that can foster dialogue and set boundaries, the report says.

Parents can talk to their children about who they’re connecting with online and how to manage their privacy settings.

Children should reach out for help if they encounter something harmful on social media, and they should be taught how to protect themselves online, according to the advisory. offers tips for reporting cyberbullying.

Visit the CyberTipline or Take It Down, or contact local law enforcement, to report online exploitation.

Call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline if you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis.

And the advisory offered this simple tip for young people: If you aren’t sure if you should post something, it’s usually best if you don’t.

The surgeon general said his goal with the advisory is to maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of social media use for children and teens.

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“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,” the surgeon general said.