U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy speaks during a news conference with White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki at the White House in Washington on July 15, 2021.

Tom Brenner | Reuters

US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned in a new advisory On Tuesday, widespread use of social media among children and teenagers poses a significant mental health risk that needs to be addressed immediately.

Such advisories are “reserved for significant public health challenges that require the nation’s immediate awareness and action,” according to a report released by the surgeon general’s office. The report is based on “a substantial review of the available evidence” on the impact of social media.

It is not the first time Murthy has called out social media for contributing to a threat to public health. In 2021 he issued a advisory on the threat of Covid disinformation and called on social media companies to make changes that favor factual sources. He has also previously said that age 13 is “too early” to use social media.

In the latest advisory, Murthy admits that social media can have both positive and negative effects on children. Social media is almost universally used among young people, the report says, with up to 95% of 13- to 17-year-olds reporting that they use it. The report says social media use in children and teenagers can result in both “heightened emotional sensitivity” that can lead to lower life satisfaction as well as positive spaces for community, information and self-expression. The sense of community that young social media users can gain online may be even more important for children from marginalized backgrounds, the report said.

“A majority of young people report that social media helps them feel more accepted (58%), like having people who can support them through tough times (67%), like having a place to show their creative side ( 71%), and more connected to what’s going on in their friends’ lives (80%),” according to the report.

Still, social media use can be potentially harmful, leading to or exacerbating eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression, according to studies cited by the surgeon general’s office.

“At present, we do not yet have enough evidence to determine whether social media is sufficiently safe for children and young people,” the report states. “We need to acknowledge the growing body of research on potential harm, increase our collective understanding of the risks associated with social media use, and take urgent action to create safe and healthy digital environments that minimize harm and protect the mental health and well-being of children and young people. – to be in critical stages of development.”

Some areas where the surgeon’s office calls for more research include distinguishing the health effects of in-person versus digital social interactions, what type of content causes the most harm to young users, and what factors can protect children from the harmful effects of social media. media use.

Although more research is needed, the surgeon general warns that action cannot wait.

“Our children and youth do not have the luxury of waiting years until we know the full extent of social media’s impact. Their childhood and development is happening now,” the report says. “At a moment when we are experiencing a national youth mental health crisis, now is the time to act quickly and decisively to protect children and young people from risk of harm.”

The warning is consistent with calls from parents, Congress and President to pass laws that will create greater protections for children online. Still figuring out how to do it without inadvertently creating new damages to self-expression or privacy can be challenging.

The surgeon makes several recommendations for policy makers, technology companies, parents and caregivers, young social media users, and researchers. They include:

For politicians:

  • Create “age-appropriate health and safety standards.”
  • Require more data privacy protections for children.
  • Fund future research.
  • Support digital and media literacy training in schools.
  • Require tech companies to share health-related data.

For technology companies:

  • Run independent assessments of their products’ impact on children.
  • Share results and underlying data with researchers.
  • Have early systems in place to deal with complaints and inquiries from young users and their families and teachers.
  • Prioritize health and safety when designing products.

For parents and caregivers:

  • Set expectations for how the technology will be used.
  • Create “technology-free zones” such as at dinner or before bed.
  • Create shared practices around social media with other parents.

For children and teenagers:

  • Seek help if they or a friend is harmed by social media, for example by finding expert information at the National Center of Excellence on Social Media and Youth Mental Health or by calling or texting the suicide hotline 988 if they or a friend are in crisis.
  • Be careful about sharing too much information on social media
  • Report harassment or abuse online.

For researchers:

  • Determine best practices for healthy social media use.
  • Create standardized definitions and measurements for discussing social media and mental health.
  • Determine the role of developmental stage in the development of poor mental health outcomes resulting from social media use.

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