Social Media and Youth Mental Health
In May of 2023, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released a new advisory on social media and youth mental health. He urges action to ensure social media environments are healthy and safe, as previously-advised national youth mental health crisis continues. As youth are currently on summer break and may have additional free time to use social media, it is important to share this advisory.
Dr. Murthy shared that 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.”
Children and adolescents are affected by social media in different ways based on their individual strengths and vulnerabilities, and based on cultural, historical, and socio-economic factors. Social media can provide benefits for some children, including serving as a source of connection for youth who are often marginalized, such as the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities, providing positive or identity-affirming content, creating a space for self-expression, and helping youth feel accepted. However, increasingly, evidence is indicating there is reason to be concerned about the risk of harm social media use poses to children and adolescents. Children and adolescents on social media are commonly exposed to extreme, inappropriate, and harmful content, and those who spend more than 3 hours a day on social media face double the risk of poor mental health, including experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety. This is deeply concerning as a recent survey of teenagers showed that, on average, they spend 3.5 hours a day on social media.
This extreme content can be spread through direct pushes, unwanted content exchanges, and algorithmic designs. In certain tragic cases, childhood deaths have been linked to suicide- and self-harm-related content, as well as risk-taking challenges on social media platforms. This content may be especially risky for children and adolescents who are already experiencing mental health difficulties. Despite social media providing a sense of community for some, a systematic review of more than two dozen studies found that some social media platforms show live depictions of self-harm acts like partial asphyxiation, leading to seizures, and cutting, leading to significant bleeding. Further, these studies found that discussing or showing this content can normalize such behaviors, including through the formation of suicide pacts and posting of self-harm models for others to follow.
U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said, “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. 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.”
There is broad concern among the scientific community that a lack of access to data and lack of transparency from technology companies have been barriers to understanding the full scope and scale of the impact of social media on child and adolescent mental health and well-being. While more research is needed to fully understand the impact of social media, this gap in knowledge cannot be an excuse for inaction.
The Advisory outlines some immediate actions we can take to make social media safer and healthier for youth. This burden cannot simply fall to parents and children. We must engage in a multifaceted effort to maximize the benefits and reduce the risk of harm posed by social media, with actions taken by groups across the spectrum: policymakers, technology companies, researchers, families, and children and adolescents themselves.
• Policymakers can take steps to strengthen safety standards and limit access in ways that make social media safer for children of all ages, better protect children’s privacy, support digital and media literacy, and fund additional research.
• Technology companies can better and more transparently assess the impact of their products on children, share data with independent researchers to increase our collective understanding of the impacts, make design and development decisions that prioritize safety and health – including protecting children’s privacy and better adhering to age minimums – and improve systems to provide effective and timely responses to complaints.
• Parents and caregivers can make plans in their households such as establishing Tech-Free Zones that help protect sleep and better foster in-person relationships, teach children and adolescents about responsible online behavior, and model that behavior, and report problematic content and activity.
• Children and adolescents can adopt healthy practices like limiting time on platforms, blocking unwanted content, being careful about sharing personal information, and reaching out if they or a friend need help or see harassment or abuse on the platforms.
• Researchers can further prioritize social media and youth mental health research that can support the establishment of standards and evaluation of best practices to support children’s health.
As your youth are home this summer with extended periods of down time it is encouraged to plan now how to fill these long periods of time without a screen being the center of focus. While not all youth are able to participate in community summer camps, enjoy time at the beach or pool there are still ways to engage in other time well spent activities. This is not to say that screen time should be entirely revoked, but monitoring and time allotment needs to be a priority of all caretakers and parents. Together, let’s spread the word of Dr. Murthy’s advisory!
Link to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Surgeon General’s Advisory: