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Social Media is a Mental Health Hazard for Nation's Youth, Surgeon General Says


The AAFP and other national medical groups endorsed the warning from Surgeon General Murthy that social media is fueling the mental health crisis among young Americans.

Near constant use of social media is contributing to a mental health crisis for young people across the United States.

On May 23, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA, published “Social Media and Youth Mental Health,” a new advisory warning physicians, parents, lawmakers, technology companies, and young people about potential mental health hazards of too much time online.

Social Media is a Mental Health Hazard for Nation's Youth, Surgeon General Says image courtesy of US Dept of Health and Human Services

US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA, describes "red flags" that suggest a mental health crisis among young Americans.

US Department of Health and Human Services

Social media use is nearly universal for young people, with up to 95% of teens aged 13 to 17 years reporting using a social media platform and more than a third saying they use social media “almost constantly,” according to the surgeon general.

“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,” Murthy said in a news release.

“Children are exposed to harmful content on social media, ranging from violent and sexual content, to bullying and harassment,” Murthy said. “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.”

A host of problems

Murthy acknowledged more research is needed to determine exact effects on social media. Mental health is complex for all age groups, especially adolescents.

But technology companies “have been barriers to understanding the full scope and scale” on social media, and available evidence points to a number of potential problems.

  • Adolescents who spend more than three hours a day using social media face double the risk of poor mental health, but one 2021 survey of teenagers found they aver 3.5 hours a day online.
  • Adolescent girls especially are exposed to body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviors, social comparison, and low self-esteem. When asked about the effects of social media on their body type, 46% of girls aged 13 to 17 years said it makes them feel worse.
  • At least 1/3 of girls aged 11 to 15 years say they feel “addicted” to certain social media sites.
  • More than half of teenagers reported it would be difficult to give up social media.
  • Up to 64% of teens are often or sometimes exposed to hate-based content.
  • Studies have shown social media affect the amount and quality of sleep for youths.
  • At least one study found almost 70% of parents said parenting is more difficult now than 20 years ago with technology and social media the top two reasons why.
  • Almost 80% of parents said tech companies have a responsibility to protect children from inappropriate content.

“Our children and adolescents don’t have the luxury of waiting years until we know the full extent of social media’s impact,” Murthy’s advisory said. “Their childhoods and development are happening now.”

Some good can come of it

Murthy noted there are positive effects to social media, according to young people:

  • 58% said social media helps them feel more accepted.
  • 67% said they have people who can support them through tough times.
  • 71% said they have a place to show their creative side.
  • 80% said they are more connected to what’s going on in friends’ lives.

Finding support

Murthy’s latest warning included endorsements from six national medical groups, including the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP).

“Social media can be a powerful tool for connection, but it can also lead to increased feelings of depression and anxiety – particularly among adolescents,” AAFP President Tochi Iroku-Malize, MD, MPH, MBA, said in a statement.

“Family physicians are often the first stop for parents and families concerned about the physical and emotional health of young people in their lives, and we confront the mental health crisis among youth every day. The American Academy of Family Physicians commends the Surgeon General for identifying this risk for America's youth and joins our colleagues across the health care community in equipping young people and their families with the resources necessary to live healthy, balanced lives.”

Additional support came from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Public Health Association, and the National Parent Teacher Association.

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