US Surgeon General: social media harms children, teens

The US Surgeon General is calling on Big Tech to implement safeguards such as stricter age limits and more data controls on social media platforms to protect the mental health of children and adolescents.

A new report released Tuesday by the US Office of the Surgeon General (OSG) found that 95% of teenagers, and even 40% of children aged 8-12, regularly use social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat.

The report also states that nearly one-third of teens admit to using screens, most commonly with social media, until midnight or later.

According to the OSG, the nation's highest authority on matters of public health, there isn't enough evidence to determine if social media use is sufficiently safe for the developing brains of these children and adolescents.

"We're in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis, and I'm concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis - one that we must urgently address," US Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy said.

Although the report does admit to some positive benefits for kids who use social media, Murthy said there are "ample indicators that social media could also harm children's well-being."

Murthy said technology companies should focus on algorithms and features designed to maximize the benefits of social media instead of features that entice young users to spend more time on the platforms.

Other suggestions would strengthen safety standards, such as creating age limits to control access to platforms, more transparency regarding data collection, and more controls to prevent easy access to inappropriate and harmful content.

This is especially true for children who are at critical stages of brain development., according to the nation's top doctor.

Kids on smartphones
Image by Shutterstock

It's proven that teenagers who spend more than three hours per day on social media are twice as likely to experience mental health issues.

“Unfortunately, in recent years, we’ve seen significant increases in certain mental health disorders in youth, including depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation,” the OSG said.

From perpetuating body image issues, social comparisons, and low self-esteem, the advisory warns social media use is especially detrimental to adolescent girls.

The survey of US adolescents found harmful effects on eating behaviors and sleep quality were also exacerbated by social media.

Almost half of adolescents aged 13-17 said social media makes them feel worse, the report showed.

Some of the benefits reported by the Surgeon General's advisory included helping kids feel more accepted, more connected to their friends, and more supported in times of need.

The advisory does suggest parents can intervene by creating a family media plan, encouraging in-person friendships, and simply talking to their children about how much time they spend online and the dangers associated with excess use.

Young social media users can also take control by blocking unwanted content, being careful about sharing personal information, and telling an adult if they witness online bullying or abuse on the platforms, the report states.

Protecting the mental health of minority and marginalized young people is a major priority for the OSG.

“Due to factors beyond their control, these groups are at a higher risk for mental health difficulties,” the office said.

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