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Social media is causing a mental health crisis in teens, surgeon general warns

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Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, a longtime supporter of mental health awareness, has issued a warning that social media use is a major contributor to depression, anxiety and other problems among the country’s adolescents.

The report, released on Tuesday, draws attention to growing concerns about the effects of social media use on the mental health of children and adolescents. The opinion urges policy makers and the companies that make social media platforms to share with parents the burden of managing children’s and teens’ use of social media.

Murthy calls youth mental health “the defining public health issue of our time”, urging policymakers to help ensure strong safety standards to help protect teens and teens from exposure to harmful content and excessive use.

According to the report, up to 95% of teens aged 13-17 say they use a social media platform. About a third say they scroll, post or interact with social media “almost constantly”.

“At this point, we don’t have enough evidence to say for sure that social media is safe enough for our children,” Murthy said in an interview. “We must now take action to ensure that we protect our children.”

The report pulls together research that links social media use to poor mental health in teens, such as a 2019 study that found teens who spent more than three hours a day on social media “were face double the risk of having poor mental health outcomes, including symptoms.” depression and anxiety.”

Since last year, surveyed 8th and 10th graders reported spending even more time each day on these platforms: 3 hours and 30 minutes, on average.

Jim Steyer, founder of Common Sense Media, an organization that advocates for laws and policies to make media more child-friendly, said the advice was “absolutely fair” and “should be a clear call to all parents in this country, to every policy maker, that we need to focus and resources on this effort.”

The most popular social media platforms among teens are TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram, according to the Pew Research Center.

The surgeon general’s social media warning comes as rates of depression, sadness and hopelessness among teenage girls have soared over the past decade, particularly among girls.

“Teenage depression began to rise around 2012, a time that coincided with the popularity of smartphones,” said Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of “Generations: The Real Differences between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Baby Boomers and Silents – and what they mean for America’s future.”

It was also a time, Twenge said, when “likes” on posts became common, and algorithms started to get more sophisticated to keep people on social media longer. clearly not a coincidence.”


The Surgeon General’s report also blamed social media for perpetuating eating disorders, body dysmorphia and low self-esteem. There is also some evidence to suggest a possible link between excessive social media use and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder in adolescents.

Twenge said social media can affect mental health in a variety of ways. Sleep and face-to-face social interactions are good for mental health, she said, but if kids are online when they should be in bed or spending time with friends, that’s a problem.

Feeling left out and comparing yourself to others can also be detrimental.

“Even though you know on an intellectual level that they took maybe 200 selfies to get the right one,” Twenge said, “on an emotional level, it’s not really processed.”

What can be done?

The surgeon general’s report outlines recommendations for tech companies and lawmakers.

“Policymakers need to step up and help ensure that we have strong safety standards, to help protect our children from exposure to harmful content and to also protect them from overuse,” Murthy said. This includes applying minimum ages.

Companies are advised to create better tools to protect teenagers and to relax features that encourage children to stay online longer.

Parents are now on the front line trying to help teens navigate the online world. The report encourages caregivers to create ‘tech-free’ zones at home and talk with children about how using social media makes them feel.

“It’s really not fair to put the blame on the parents alone. Why isn’t the industry held accountable for creating the platforms and creating even more addictive features?” Common Sense Media’s Steyer said. “There needs to be a big national discussion.”

How old should children be before using social media?

Most tech companies require users to be at least 13 years old. But nearly 40% of children aged 8 to 12 use social media, according to the report.

Murthy said he thought even 13 was too young to be on social media, but said there wasn’t enough data to suggest what age would be appropriate.

Twenge suggested that the minimum age be set at 16.

“Let’s put regulations in place now to help kids who aren’t on social media yet,” Twenge said. “Maybe we can save the next generation.”

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Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.