Social media can be harmful to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents, but the platforms can also be an important outlet for positive relationships and connections, said a public health advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General Tuesday.
The 25-page advisory called attention to the growing concerns about adverse impacts of youth social media use and asked policymakers, technology companies, researchers, families and youth to better understand the full impact of social media use, including how to "maximize the benefits and minimize the harms" of these platforms.
“The most common question parents ask me is, ‘is social media safe for my kids,'" said U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, in a statement. "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.”
Murthy added that children are exposed to harmful content on social media, including bullying, harassment, and violent and sexual content. He called for more coordinated, proactive measures to safeguard social media use among teens in the same fashion that protections are used for toys, transportation and medication.
"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.
The advisory points out that social media use is widespread among teens with 95% of 13-17 year olds saying they use its platforms. More than a third said they use social media "almost constantly."
One of social media benefits for youth mentioned in the advisory is the opportunity to connect with peers who have shared identities, abilities, and interests. Studies have shown that social media can help LGBTQ+ youth make peer connections and gain social support, the advisory said.
Among the recommendations in the advisory is for the development, implementation and evaluation of digital and media literacy in schools. Those lessons can help teens recognize, manage and recover from online risks such as cyberbullying, harassment and addiction to social media use, the advisory said.
On the same day the advisory was issued, the White House announced several new actions to address social media and other online activities that impact youth. Those actions include creating an interagency task force for assessing and preventing online harms to youth, as well as enhancing the privacy of students' data to address concerns about the monetization of that personal data by companies.
The Surgeon General's advisory follows an advisory issued by the American Psychological Association on May 10 regarding youth social media use that said these interactions aren't "inherently beneficial or harmful to young people." The APA also made several recommendations, including that youth should be encouraged to use functions that promote healthy socialization and that social media functions and permissions be tailored to youth's social and cognitive development.
Meanwhile, several school districts across the country are suing social media companies claiming the platforms are detrimental to youth mental wellbeing and that they were intentionally designed to maximize the time students engaged on the apps.