U.S. Surgeon General says social media presents ‘profound risk of harm for kids’ in new advisory

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy is calling on policymakers, tech companies and parents to take “immediate action” to protect the mental health of our children in regard to social media use. In a new advisory issued Tuesday, Dr. Murthy says social media carries a “profound risk of harm” in terms of the mental well-being of children and teenagers.

“The most common question parents ask me is, ‘is social media safe for my kids’?” Dr. Murthy tells Motherly in an interview. “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.”

Here’s what the research shows about kids and social media use

According to the 25-page advisory, up to 95% of youth between the ages of 13 and 17 report using a social media platform, with more than one-third saying they use social media “almost constantly.” Though the most common minimum age required for social media platforms is 13, nearly 40% of U.S. children between the ages of 8 and 12 use social media.

Dr. Murthy cites increasing concerns among researchers, parents, caregivers, healthcare experts and more about the impact of social media on youth mental health. He tells Motherly that because children are exposed to harmful content on social media like violence, sexual content, bullying, and online harassment, the effect on their overall health is dire.

“For too many children, social media use is compromising their sleep and valuable in-person time with family and friends,” he explains. “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.”

When asked if there was a difference in the impact of social media on girls vs. boys, Dr. Murthy confirmed that young girls are affected in ways boys typically aren’t.

“Young girls do seem to be particularly affected,” he says. “Though when you look at adolescents overall, they say social media has made them feel worse about their bodies. And so this is one real reason for us to be concerned.”

Related: APA releases new guidelines on teen social media use: What parents need to know

The advisory reports a significant relationship between social media use and body image—and perpetuates eating disorders and depression—as well as social comparison overall. When asked about the impact of social media on their body image, 46% of adolescents ages 13-17 say social media makes them feel worse about themselves.

Dr. Murthy also says while the research surrounding social media use and neurodevelopmental disorders like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is still evolving, there is a notable correlation between ADHD symptoms and social media use. The advisory report states that during a two-year follow-up with study participants, high-frequency use of digital media was associated with “a statistically significant increased odds of developing ADHD symptoms.”

“Social media can powerfully stimulate the ‘reward center’ of our brain,” Dr. Murthy tells Motherly. “When that center is overstimulated, it can trigger patterns of the brain that are very similar to the patterns we see in people who struggle with addiction.”

According to the advisory, as of 2021, 8th and 10th graders are currently spending an average of 3.5 hours per day on social media. In an experiment leveraging the introduction of a social media platform across colleges in the U.S., the roll-out of the social media platform was associated with an increase in depression and anxiety among college students—more than 300,000 new cases of depression were reported.

If the effects of social media use were this staggering with college-aged adults, the effect on children—who are in a more vulnerable stage of brain development—is very serious.

Can policy and the law catch up to technology in order to keep our kids safe online?

Dr. Murthy believes legislators and policymakers play a crucial role in regard to these issues at hand, and can help protect children from harm. Stronger protections are needed to ensure the safety of children interacting with all social media platforms, and the government—in collaboration with schools, public health experts, and technology companies—has a duty to implement them.

Related: U.S. Surgeon General warns 13 is too young for social media

“I’ve certainly been encouraged to see more discussions from lawmakers around social media and trying to protect our kids,” he tells Motherly. “But this is really important—it has to translate into action as well.”

He believes we need to have safety standards in place similar to those in place regarding products and toys children use.

“We need these safety standards. The work of lawmakers is going to be critical in order to accomplish that.”

How parents can combat social media over-use in the home

Dr. Murthy’s advisory has many concrete examples of ways parents can prevent their children from succumbing to social media addiction.

  • Create a family media plan that includes establishing healthy boundaries surrounding technology and social media use. The American Academy of Pediatrics has information on creating a family media plan here.

  • Establish “tech-free zones” in the home (the dinner table being one example), and encourage children to foster in-person friendships. Dr. Murthy recommends all technology use be put away an hour or two before bed—for the whole family.

  • Parents should model responsible behavior with our own technology use.

  • Teach our kids about technology and empower them to be responsible online users at the appropriate age. Parents can and should discuss the benefits and risks of social media as well as respecting privacy and protecting personal information.

  • Work with other parents to help establish shared norms and practices.

“The bottom line is we do not have enough evidence to conclude that social media is, in fact, sufficiently safe for our kids,” Dr. Murthy states. “And that’s really important for parents to know.”