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The Surgeon General’s advice on the risks of young people’s use of social media could change the conversation


A new public health alert this week from the US Surgeon General explores concerns that social media use among children and teens poses serious risks that science is just beginning to understand.

“…The current body of evidence indicates that while social media may have benefits for some children and adolescents, there is ample evidence that social media may also carry a high risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents, American Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy wrote in the opinion. “At this point, we don’t have enough evidence to determine whether social media is sufficiently safe for children and adolescents.”

The opinion recognizes the positive effects of young people’s use of social media, noting that social platforms connect young people with others who share their interests and identities, while promoting self-expression. These benefits are currently well researched and basically ubiquitous, but the more hidden, potentially lasting negative effects of social media on young people are much less explored.

“Almost every teen in America uses social media, yet we don’t have enough evidence to conclude it’s safe enough for them,” the advisory warns. “Our children have become unwitting participants in a decades-long experiment.”

Like many phenomena that emerged from the tech scene, social media was indeed moving fast as it broke and changed things over the course of the past decade, rearranging social behavior and the human brain in the process. While the adult brain is sufficiently settled to withstand those changes, this and other reports raise the alarm that children and adolescents are now regularly exposed to forces that can have lasting negative consequences for both the brain and behavior.

“Adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 undergo a very sensitive period of brain development,” Murthy wrote. “…In early adolescence, when identities and a sense of self are forming, brain development is particularly sensitive to social pressures, peer opinions, and peer comparisons.”

a recent research of researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill imaged the brains of high school students and found that how often they checked social media apps (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat) correlated with changes in the amygdala that were mapped with the constant sensitivity to rewards and punishments. Other studies have examined how rejection on social media can affect structures in the brain that respond to social stimuli, noting that these responses are enhanced in young, developing brains.

“Because adolescence is a vulnerable period of brain development, exposure to social media during this period deserves extra attention,” Murthy wrote.

The opinion recognizes the disproportionate burden parents and families now bear as they navigate social media use without adequate tools or resources to properly protect young people from the potential harm. Murthy is calling on policymakers and tech companies to come together for a “multifaceted approach” that the US has taken with other products posing risks to children:

“The US has a strong history of taking action in such circumstances. In the case of toys, transportation and medicine, among other industries that are widely used and impact children, the US has often adopted a safety-first approach to reduce the risk of harm to consumers. According to this principle, a basic safety threshold must be met, and until safety has been demonstrated through rigorous evidence and independent evaluation, protective measures are put in place to minimize the risk of damage from products, services or goods.

The Surgeon General’s specific policy recommendations include implementing higher standards of youth data privacy, enforcing minimum ages, deepening research in these areas, and weaving digital media literacy education into circles.

A report earlier this month from the American Psychological Association also pointed to the potentially serious harms of social media to brain development and encouraged open dialogue between children and parents about their online activities. While that report and the Surgeon General’s opinion ultimately view social media as a neutral tool that “is not inherently beneficial or harmful to young people,” the latter presents the issue in the context of a public health crisis and calls for urgent action to address the potential harm from developing minds increasingly delving into online spaces.

While the advice itself isn’t guaranteed to move the needle, it helpfully presents young people’s use of social media as a public health crisis — a shift for an issue often pointed at parents or defined by tech companies’ own rosy talking points. In the past, the surgeon general’s advice did reformed the national dialogue around threats to public health, such as smoking and drunk driving. They have also ushered in eras of evidenceless scaremongering, such as a 1982 advisory that warned that video games were dangerous for young people. (Contrary to that advice, Murthy’s new report is accompanied by a much deeper emerging body of scientific evidence.)

The White House thus followed the office of the surgeon general own proposal to create an inter-agency task force on the issue, bringing together agencies including the Department of Education, the FTC and the DOJ to coordinate the youth mental health crisis. What will come of these opinions remains to be seen – and many different political agendas emerge efforts to protect children. Task forces have a reputation for being ineffective, but slowly moving the conversation around social media and children’s mental health toward a public health framework could be beneficial in the long run.

The issue comes up again and again in congressional hearings, but the possibility of thoughtful US regulation addressing the ability of technology to manipulate the behavior of young users while monetizing their data remains in the backseat of partisan politics and political grandeur. While the EU passes meaningful new rules for social media, such as the Digital Services Act, lawmakers in the US continue to fail on fundamental cross-platform issues such as data privacy and dangerous content.

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

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