(OSV News) ─ For parents still wondering if social media can harm their children’s mental health, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy on May 23: “We are in the midst of a national adolescent mental health crisis, and I am.” I am concerned that social media is a major driver of this crisis — a crisis that we urgently need to address. “
The Surgeon General’s Advisory on Social Media and Youth Mental Health includes 21 pages of details and statistics, which are succinctly summarized in the attached US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) press release: “While social media offers some benefits, there are many.” Evidence that social media may also pose a risk to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”
Since HHS reports that nearly 95% of young people ages 13 to 17 use social media — with more than one in three reporting being on social media “almost constantly” — the scope of Murthy’s concerns is nearly universal.
“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 that it’s safe, and in fact, there’s mounting evidence that social media use is linked. “It’s damaging to young people’s mental health,” Murthy noted in the same press release . “Children are exposed to harmful content on social media, ranging from violent and sexual content to bullying and harassment. And for too many children, using social media interferes with their sleep and valuable face-to-face time with family and friends.”
Experts told OSV News that they welcomed the surgeon general’s announcement.
“The Surgeon General’s report not only calls for something to be done — it also calls for something to be done quickly,” said Amanda Raffoul, associate professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and associate in the Division of Adolescent and Adolescent Medicine Adults at Boston Children’s Hospital.
“I think the Surgeon General’s report can help reinforce some of the concerns that the research community — as well as policy and children’s mental health in general — have had in recent years,” Raffoul told OSV News. “It doesn’t call for a total ban or restriction on social media for minors, but it does show some avenues for policymakers – and social media platforms in particular – to ensure children can and do be online .” it is safe and not harmful to them.”
HHS notes that “Among other things, teens report that social media helps them feel more accepted (58%), like they have people to support them in difficult times (67%), like they have a place where they can show their creative side (71%) and are more connected to what’s going on in their friends’ lives (80%).”
Nonetheless, overuse of social media has serious consequences: HHS notes, “Recent research shows that teens who spend more than three hours a day on social media are twice as likely to have bad mental health outcomes, such as depression and depression suffering anxiety symptoms.” ; yet a 2021 survey of teens found they spend an average of 3.5 hours a day on social media. Social media can also contribute to body dissatisfaction, disordered eating, social comparison and low self-esteem, particularly in adolescent girls.”
Almost half (46%) of teens aged 13-17 said social media made them feel worse about their body image. Hate-based social media content is also encountered “often” or “sometimes” by 64% of young people.
“As parents, having access to social media feels like a Pandora’s box for our kids,” said Kristin Bird, mother of three, who has written about social media use for Catholic youth organization Life Teen, which is also based in Wisconsin Organization runs parish and diocesan advisory firm Burning Hearts Disciples.
“It seems far easier to avoid social media altogether than to either withdraw access once it’s allowed or try to undo the psychological, social, and spiritual damage caused by social media after it happens,” Bird said to OSV News. “The key is finding a balance that helps protect our children, and gradually allowing age-appropriate technology when our children show they can use it with maturity.”
“On the one hand, it’s too late for the children and young adults who are already suffering the ill effects,” Bird observed. “On the other hand: Better late than never!”
Bird strongly emphasizes the role parents must play.
“Legislation surrounding social media will no doubt help parents, but we cannot rely on the government to do our job for us,” she said. “We need to take responsibility for the safety of our children and talk to them about the dangers of social media just like we need to talk to them about the dangers of alcohol, drugs and other risky behaviors.”
Jessica Heldman, a child rights professor at the University of San Diego and a member of the Children’s Advocacy Institute, said big tech companies still need to be held accountable for the harm done to young people.
“They learn to starve, self-harm, and self-loathing by substituting hours on social media for sleep and healthy activities,” Heldman said of teenage social media users. “Yet, social media platforms continue to benefit from algorithms and design features that spread harmful content to children and make it nearly impossible to disengage from their platforms.”
“This notice emphasizes what the real issue is,” Heldman told OSV News, “and it refutes any notion that social media platforms are somehow different enough from other products to allow them to operate with impunity.”
Christopher McKenna, digital safety expert, founder of Protect Young Eyes, and keynote speaker at the 2022 National Catholic Educational Association conference, noted, “In today’s culture, we tend to treat children as if they are small adults. And that’s just untrue.” . Childhood is unique. Children’s brains are unique. They are in a unique development phase.”
“Technology doesn’t treat us any differently, though,” McKenna told OSV News. “So we put kids with kids’ brains…into these extremely smart technologies. The world’s most brilliant software engineers create these technologies. And then we get upset when these kids make decisions like kids, within technologies that weren’t made for them at all.
McKenna commended HHS’s policy proposals, which include strengthening security and privacy standards by policymakers; greater transparency from technology companies; parental education for children in responsible online behavior; limit online time by children; and prioritization by researchers to set social media standards and ratings.
“We’re experimenting on kids,” McKenna said. “We can’t wait for science to catch up with the experiences that parents and educators are observing firsthand.”
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Kimberley Heatherington writes for OSV News from Virginia.