Social media use can pose a serious hazard for teenagers, US surgeon general Vivek Murthy warns in a new health advisory. His report, released on May 23, notes that teenagers who use social media for more than three hours a day double their risk of depression and anxiety.
This is an alarming statistic, especially considering the advisory cites a study that found US teenagers use social media for an average of three-and-a-half hours a day, while more than a third use it “almost constantly.”
“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 says in the report, pointing to the internet’s tendency to isolate young adults.
The advisory highlights several common scenarios on social media that can harm the adolescent psyche, including exposure to graphic and harmful content and cyberbullying. Social media can also contribute to eating disorders and low self-esteem, especially for teenage girls.
The report is part of US president Joe Biden’s recent push to prioritize mental healthcare across the country, including a $200 million federal investment in infrastructure for suicide and crisis lifelines, as well as school-based resources.
“The most common question parents ask me is, ‘is social media safe for my kids’. 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. 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.” —Surgeon general Vivek Murthy, introducing the litany of risk factors for teenagers using social media
Who’s to blame for teenagers’ screen addiction?
In his advisory, Murthy calls out policymakers and technology companies for enabling the growing mental health crisis, encouraging lawmakers to introduce new regulations.
Specifically, the surgeon general advocates for age-based health and safety standards across the tech industry, including stronger restrictions on adolescent access to harmful content promoting eating disorders, suicide, and sexual violence.
Also, according to the advisory, three-quarters of teenagers believe that tech firms manipulate users to spend more time on their devices.
This has become an increasingly common perspective, with dozens of school districts and thousands of parents suing tech companies for using algorithmic data to encourage young people to spend an unhealthy time on social media and apps. In fact, protecting teenagers was part of state lawmakers’ decision last week to ban TikTok, the popular video-based social media app, in Montana.
Teenage social media use in the US, by the digits
95%: Share of US teenagers who report using a social media platform.
80%: Share who say social media helps them feel more connected to their friends.
3.5 hours: Average time US teenagers spend on social media each day.
46%: Share who say social media makes them feel worse.
64%: Share who report being exposed to hate-based content. Social media is impacting how teenagers sleep
Social media is affecting teenagers’ sleep
Social media’s negative impact on sleep and its implications for adolescent development is a major factor in the surgeon general’s advisory.
Studies cited in Murthy’s advisory found a consistent relationship between social media use and poor sleep quality. Sleep is especially important for young adults, with poor rest linked to altered neurological development in adolescent brains, depressive symptoms, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
With more than a third of teenagers reporting that they use screens until midnight or later, Murthy points to the impact of social media on sleep cycles as a grave health risk for adolescents.
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