Amid what he called the worst youth mental health crisis in recent memory, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory Tuesday warning about social media’s impact on developing young brains.
“Through the last two and a half years I’ve been in office, I’ve been hearing concerns from kids and parents,” Murthy told STAT. “Parents are asking ‘Is social media safe for my kids?’ Based on our review of the data, there isn’t enough evidence that it is safe for our kids.”
The surgeon general’s report comes in the wake of a recent health advisory on teens and social media use from the American Psychological Association, which noted the increased risk of anxiety and depression among adolescents who are exposed to discrimination and bullying online. Other research has shown that adolescents ages 12-15 who spent more than three hours per day on social media face a heightened risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes compared to those who spent less time online.
The advisory calls on policymakers and technology companies to take steps to minimize the risks of social media. “This is not going to be an issue that we solve with one sector alone,” Murthy said.
Policymakers, according to the report, need to develop age restrictions and safety standards for social media — much like the regulations that the U.S. has in place for everything from cars to medicine.
Specifically, Murthy would like to see policymakers require a higher standard of data privacy for children to protect them from potential harms like exploitation and abuse. Six in 10 adolescents say they have little or no control over the personal information that social media companies collect about them, according to a study cited in the report.
Technology companies, meanwhile, need to be more transparent about the data they share, according to Murthy. He calls on companies to assess the potential risks of online interactions and take active steps to prevent potential misuse. He also suggests the establishment of scientific advisory committees to inform approaches and policies aimed at creating safe online environments for children.
The advisory also suggests families attempt to protect young people’s mental health by developing a family media plan aimed at establishing healthy technology boundaries at home, such as creating “tech-free zones” that restrict phone use during certain hours or family mealtime. But Murthy noted that parents are already at the end of their rope in trying to manage how their children are exposed to and using this rapidly evolving technology. That responsibility has fallen entirely on them up to this point.
“We’ve got to move quickly,” he said. “None of us should be satisfied until we have clear evidence that these platforms are safe.”
Murthy recognizes that social media can also be helpful to young people, serving as a source of connection, information, and support. That can be particularly true for youth who are often marginalized and who might otherwise be isolated, such as the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities. A 2022 Pew Research Center survey, for example, found that 80% of teens report that social media helps them feel more connected to what is going on in their friends’ lives, while 67% said that social media made them feel like they have people who can support them through tough times.
“We need to maximize the benefits and minimize the harms,” Murthy said. “We have not done that. It’s time to take a thoughtful, intentional approach to this.”