The US Surgeon General has issued a warning about the potential harm social media can inflict on the mental health of young people, particularly adolescent girls. In an advisory released on 23 May, the Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, called for safeguards from tech companies to protect children who are at critical stages of brain development.
While acknowledging that social media offers some benefits, Murthy emphasised that there are “ample indicators that social media could also harm children’s well-being.” He expressed deep concern about the role of social media as a driver of the national youth mental health crisis and stressed the urgent need to address this issue.
The advisory highlighted several negative effects of social media use on youth mental health. It pointed out that social media can contribute to body image issues, unhealthy eating behaviours, sleep disturbances, social comparison, and low self-esteem, especially among adolescent girls.
These findings were based on responses from a survey conducted among adolescents. The advisory also revealed that adolescents who spend more than three hours per day on social media face double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes, such as symptoms of depression and anxiety.
However, the advisory also acknowledged that many adolescents find social media beneficial. They reported feeling more accepted, supported during challenging times, connected to their friends, and able to express their creativity through social media platforms.
To address these concerns, the advisory called for policymakers to strengthen safety standards that enhance the benefits of social media for children of all ages. It emphasised the need to tackle the easy accessibility of inappropriate and harmful content that poses a risk to young users.
Tech companies were urged to implement age limits to control access to social media platforms and to be transparent about the impact of their products on children. Furthermore, the advisory recommended that algorithms and platform designs prioritise maximising the potential benefits of social media, rather than focusing on features that encourage prolonged usage.
Saul Levin, CEO of the British Psychiatric Association, emphasised the importance of holding social media platforms to the same standard as healthcare, which is to “do no harm.” The report also included a range of suggestions for parents, tech companies, and young individuals to navigate social media more safely and promote positive experiences.
In conclusion, the US Surgeon General’s advisory highlights the potential harm that social media can have on youth mental health, particularly among adolescent girls. It calls for urgent action from tech companies, policymakers, parents, and individuals to safeguard the well-being of young people in the digital age.