Surgeon General Warns Social Media Is Driving a ‘Youth Mental Health Crisis’

Ryan Morgan
By Ryan Morgan
May 23, 2023Health

United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a new advisory on Tuesday morning, warning that social media can negatively impact the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents and may be contributing to a youth mental health crisis.

“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,” Murthy said in a Tuesday press statement. “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.”

The 25-page advisory (pdf), issued through the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), cites numerous studies on how social media use has impacted children.

The advisory describes some of the potential benefits of social media use, such as building a sense of community among people with shared identities and interests. But the HHS report also notes the potential drawbacks of prolonged social media use, like the development of poor body image and eating disorders, exposure to bullying and hateful content, deaths and injuries linked to popular risk-taking challenges spread on social media platforms, and the potential normalization of self-harm and suicidal behavior. The advisory also described links between social media use and poor sleep and attention problems.

A 2019 study cited in the new HHS advisory found that children between the age of 12 and 15 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.

Social media platforms can also expose children to predatory behavior, such as sexual or financial exploitation. According to a 2023 study (pdf) cited by the HHS advisory, 58 percent of girls who used Instagram, 57 percent who used Snapchat, and 46 percent who used TikTok reported unwanted contact from strangers on those platforms.

What to Do About Social Media

The impact social media has on children has been a longstanding point of concern, but how to address these concerns remains unclear.

Murthy has previously suggested raising the minimum age requirement for using social media platforms. Many platforms require users to be at least 13 years old, but Murthy has said that may still be too young.

“I, personally, based on the data I’ve seen, believe that 13 is too early,” he told CNN in January.

In March, Utah became the first state to require social media companies to verify that users in the state are at least 18 years old in order to open an account, and require parental consent for users under the age of 18. Utah also passed a law that requires social media companies to allow parents full access to their child’s accounts.

Murthy and the HHS concluded that the burden of regulating social media use has largely fallen on children and their parents.

“While nearly all parents believe they have a responsibility to protect their children from inappropriate content online, the entire burden of mitigating the risk of harm of social media cannot be placed on the shoulders of children and parents. Nearly 80 percent of parents believe technology companies have a responsibility to protect children from inappropriate content as well,” the new HHS advisory states.

The advisory concludes with lists of recommendations for policymakers, companies, parents, and children going forward.

Among the recommendations for policymakers are calls to establish age-based standards for how social media companies employ features intended to maximize time, attention, and engagement on their platforms. Policymakers are also advised to “ensure technology companies share data relevant to the health impact of their platforms with independent researchers and the public,” support the development of digital and media literacy curricula in schools, and support increased funding to research the potential benefits and harms of social media use.

Social media companies are advised to share user data with researchers more freely, and to better tailor tools and features of their platforms to reduce harm and encourage safer online behavior for young people.

Parents are advised to set limits on their family’s social media use, teach their children about social media risks, and report cyberbullying and other online abuse or harassment. Children are similarly advised to be aware of the time they spend online, block unwanted contacts and content, and report online harassment they encounter.