Surgeon General Health Advisory on Risks of Social Media Addiction

by | May 31, 2023

On May 23, the United States Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, as part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), published a new health advisory that warns of the mental health risks involved in social media addiction by children and adolescents. Although Dr. Murthy acknowledges that there may be some benefits to social media, he cautions that because the use of social media by young people is so prevalent, the risks are significant and increasing.  Describing the widespread use of social media platforms, the advisory states:

“Social media use by youth is nearly universal. Up to 95% of youth ages 13–17 report using a social media platform, with more than a third saying they use social media “almost constantly.” Although age 13 is commonly the required minimum age used by social media platforms in the U.S., nearly 40% of children ages 8–12 use social media.”

Pointing to the number of young people engaging with social media on a regular basis, the advisory discusses the detrimental effects that social media can have on developing adolescent brains, highlighting the vulnerability of boys, and especially girls, to its potentially deleterious impact. The report states:

“A longitudinal cohort study of U.S. adolescents aged 12–15 (n=6,595) that adjusted for baseline mental health status found that adolescents who spent more than 3 hours per day on social media faced double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes including symptoms of depression and anxiety.”

The report notes some positive effects from the use of social media that include children feeling supported, accepted and a part of their friends’ lives. They also appreciate the opportunity to express their creativity.

However, the negative impacts of social media use on adolescent mental health are significant and include “poor sleep, online harassment, poor body image, low self-esteem and higher depressive symptom scores with a larger association for girls than boys.” In addition, excessive use can lead to addiction, resulting in part from social media platforms designed to instigate and prolong user engagement and target potentially harmful content.

In an effort to address these growing concerns, the Surgeon General described a “national youth mental health crisis” and issued a “call for urgent action” by “policymakers, technology companies, researchers, families, and young people alike to gain a better understanding of the full impact of social media use, maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of social media platforms, and create safer, healthier online environments to protect children.”

The Surgeon General also encouraged action by policymakers, tech companies, parents and caregivers, researchers and the children and adolescents themselves, asking stakeholders to take steps to create healthy practices and a better awareness of the impacts of social media and regulate its overuse.

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