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Social Media Poses ‘Profound Risk’ to Kids’ Mental Health, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy Warns

Social Media Poses ‘Profound Risk’ to Kids’ Mental Health, Surgeon General Warns

Experts interviewed by The Defender said limiting kids’ access to social media may be a good idea, but they cautioned against focusing exclusively on the technology as the source of the current youth mental health crisis.

May 24, 2023: The U.S. Surgeon General this week issued a public advisory warning that social media can pose a “profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”

In this 25-page advisory, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy called on policymakers, tech companies, and parents to take action to mitigate harm, and offered recommendations for how to do that. He also called for more research into the risks.

In a statement, Murthy said:

“Children are exposed to harmful content on social media, ranging from violent and sexual content to bullying and harassment. And for too many children, social media use is compromising their sleep and valuable in-person time with family and friends.
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.”

According to the advisory, up to 95% of youth ages 13-17 use social media, with one-third of that group saying they use it “almost constantly,” and 40% of children ages 8-12 use it. Murthy also said there isn’t enough evidence to determine whether social media is “sufficiently safe” for children and teenagers.

The report has largely been celebrated by organizations such as the American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Public Health Association, and National Parent Teacher Association, Common Dreams reported.

Also on Tuesday, the White House announced actions at the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Education, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and Justice to “build upon” Murthy’s advisory, including the creation of a task force, new regulations and resources.

President Biden “has made tackling the mental health crisis a top priority, and he continues to call on Congress to pass legislation that would strengthen protections for children’s privacy, health, and safety online,” the White House said.

The move comes amid ongoing debates around the administration-supported Restrict Act that proposes to ban social media website TikTok to protect users from having their data used by a foreign government.

Critics on both the Left and the Right have raised concerns that the bill goes far beyond TikTok providing seeping and undemocratic power to the federal government to impose regulations on internet use in a way akin to a “Patriot Act 2.0,” The Defender reported.

Murthy this week also issued an advisory about an “epidemic of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection in our country” and laid out a framework to “increase connection.”

Vivek’s announcement comes on the heels of a similar advisory issued last week by the American Psychological Association.

Advisory ‘overstates’ social media as cause of harms, experts say

Jacqueline Nesi, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at Brown University who studies the ways in which social media affects teenagers, told The Washington Post the surgeon general’s report makes some good “common sense” recommendations for tech companies and families, but that it might “overstate” social media as the cause of youth mental health issues on social media alone.

Many people assume social media is bad for kids, but existing data are largely correlational and high-quality evidence of causality is lacking, Susan Engel, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and senior lecturer in psychology at Williams College, told The Defender in an interview.

“We know that kids are very stressed right now and that older kids who can self-report are reporting high levels of stress,” Engel said. “But it’s very hard to point to the cause because the last six years have been very stressful for the country.”

Engel noted that during the pandemic, kids were dependent on computers for learning, and “so the possible dangers of social media were exponentially strengthened by the fact that everybody was also dependent on their computers, including kids.”

“As a researcher, I would be cautious,” Engel said. “I don’t think we have the evidence we need yet to be sure of what’s causing what.”

Vinay Prasad, M.D., MPH, wrote that “School closures and preventing teens from interacting increased online social media use, particularly in lieu of in-person interactions. Given the IFR [infection fatality rate] of COVID at these ages, and given that all kids would eventually get COVID anyway (pre-vax), this was disastrous public policy.”

Prasad wrote that the Biden administration had planned to open elementary and middle schools within 100 days of taking office, but then under pressure from teachers’ unions, largely kept schools closed until Fall 2021. When schools did re-open, it was largely with mandatory cloth masks.

A number of studies have shown that school closures did not slow the virus spread and had devastating effects on learning and social interaction for children.

According to Prasad:

“Lockdowns and social distance cost people time with loved ones, fueling loneliness. The surgeon general’s priorities are a consequence of (or at least worsened by) the policies he supported when he advised candidate Biden, and the policies his administration enacted. “They failed to open all schools in 100 days, costing kids massive educational attainment, which will lead to massive years of life lost. “Many in public health argue that prevention is better than treatment. By this metric, the Surgeon General’s policies are a catastrophic failure — trying to clean up his own medical malpractice and iatrogenic injury.”

‘Kids need human interaction’

The surgeon general’s advisory makes only broad recommendations for policymakers, suggesting they strengthen protections to ensure greater safety for children interacting with all social media platforms — limiting access, requiring high data privacy standards for children and conducting research.

It recommends tech companies conduct “transparent and independent assessments” of social media’s impact on children and “assume responsibility” for those impacts. But Engel said it would be difficult for tech companies to do such research with integrity.

“It’s like asking a cigarette company to see whether cigarettes give you lung cancer,” she said. “And we know how that research turned out. It’s just a great example of why we need federally funded independent research. We need disinterested parties to look at this.”

The report also recommended families put limits on children’s use, model responsible social media behavior, ensure age-appropriate social media engagement and report online abuse.

Engel said these were all important, and despite the lack of causal research, “there’s very little advantage” to allowing kids to spend a lot of time on social media.

But she also recommended families, educators and policymakers focus on cultivating the practices that are good for children.

She said:

“Instead of focusing on limiting access to social media, why not focus on the things that we know are good for children? Like talking to them, like giving them time to play, like being interested in them.
[Children] really need to use their bodies, that’s number one, and number two, they absolutely desperately need interaction with others for their intellectual development. “So holding aside all connections between anxiety and, and social media, which may turn out to be as strong as is suggested, we don’t know yet, but we for sure have plenty of evidence that kids need human interaction for their intellectual development.”

Brenda Baletti, Ph.D. Brenda Baletti Ph.D. is a reporter for The Defender. She wrote and taught about capitalism and politics for 10 years in the writing program at Duke University. She holds a Ph.D. in human geography from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master's from the University of Texas at Austin.


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