There’s a lot we don’t know about how social media can affect developing brains, but the potential risk it poses to children’s mental health is substantial. That’s the big takeaway from an advisory issued by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.
The advisory adds another high-profile voice to a growing chorus of policymakers in recent months who have highlighted the link between kids’ rising social media use and deteriorating mental health—a connection that educators have been ringing alarm bells over since before the pandemic.
While those concerns have struggled to capture much attention beyond education and research circles for a long time, this advisory is another indication that the issue of social media and kids’ mental health is now top of mind for policymakers.
“The bottom line is we do not have enough evidence to conclude that social media is sufficiently safe for our kids,” Murthy said in an opinion piece published in The Washington Post. “In fact, there is increasing evidence that social media use during adolescence—a critical stage of brain development—is associated with harm to mental health and well-being. In light of the ongoing youth mental health crisis, it is no longer possible to ignore social media’s potential contribution to the pain that millions of children and families are experiencing.”
Advisories from the Surgeon General aim to highlight urgent public health issues and make recommendations for addressing them. This one specifically calls for more support for developing, implementing, and evaluating digital and media literacy curricula for schools; and it offers recommendations for policymakers and technology companies to consider.
The advisory is one more example of how pressure is building for social media companies to do more to address the harm an increasing number of policymakers and educational leaders say their products are causing young people.
Dozens of school districts from across the country have now sued the major social media companies, claiming that their products are eroding students’ mental health and burdening schools with fixing the problem. There is also a growing movement at both the state and federal levels to regulate social media companies and how minors can use their products.
Social media companies, for their part, say they are working diligently to protect young users by consulting with mental health experts and providing parental control options, screen management tools, and age-verification features, among other strategies.
The advisory underscores that more research is still needed. There are potential benefits to social media use among children and teens—it can provide a positive connection between kids with similar interests and identities. An oft-cited example is research showing that social media can be a lifeline to LGBTQ+ teens seeking connection with—and support from—peers with common concerns. Many girls of color say in surveys that they see content on social media that shows their race or ethnicity in a positive and affirming light, which can be validating and good for their mental health and identity formation.
But social media can also expose children and teens to violent and racist content and predatory adults.
Current research also paints a worrisome picture, the advisory warns: there is growing evidence that social media poses a significant risk of harm to children’s mental health. One study found that adolescents who spent more than three hours per day on social media doubled their risk of experiencing mental health issues, such as symptoms of depression and anxiety. Another study of young adults found that limiting social media use to no more than half an hour a day for three weeks significantly improved the severity of participants’ depression.
Other research has found the more kids are on social media, the more problems they have with sleep, body image issues, cyber bullying, and low-self-esteem.
The negative side of social media can have far reaching effects, given that the vast majority of teens use it. Ninety-five percent of 13- to 17-year-olds are on social media and more than a third say they use it “almost constantly.” Nearly 40 percent of children ages 8 to 12 use social media, even though most social media companies require users to be at least 13 to create an account.
Why developing brains are vulnerable to social media
To understand why social media can harm kids’ mental well-being, we have to look under the hood at how adolescent brains develop.
Adolescents’ brains are “undergoing a highly sensitive period of brain development” between the ages of 10 and 19, the advisory says—a time when risk-taking behaviors peak and when mental health issues such as depression typically present themselves. This is also when kids are starting to parse out who they are and their place in the world, making them especially vulnerable to peer pressure.
Adolescents are also uniquely susceptible to social media features designed to keep users on the platform longer and longer. They simply do not have the maturity or discipline to know when to turn it off.
In addition to those mental health concerns, excessive social media use has also been linked to sleep and attention problems—all of which affect adolescents’ ability to focus and learn in school.
The advisory points out that no child’s experience on social media is exactly alike—it depends on myriad factors such as how much time they spend on social media, what platforms they use, what kind of content they engage with, and even children’s individual personalities and backgrounds.
“Social media has fundamentally changed the way children communicate, build relationships, and see themselves and the world,” Murthy said in The Washington Post. He said he and his wife plan to keep their 5-year-old daughter off social media through middle school—if they can hold out that long.
Many of the concerns raised in the advisory form the backbone of a growing number of lawsuits filed by school districts against social media companies that claim that harm done to kids’ mental health is also harm done to schools, which are struggling to provide services to students with mental health and behavioral problems and keep them on track academically.
While many experts are generally not bullish about the lawsuits’ prospects in court, some say the legal action may go a long way toward raising awareness of the problems facing youth and the schools charged with educating them.
Legislation has also been filed in at least nine state houses this spring to regulate how children and teens interact with social media—including age and time restrictions for young users and restrictions on how social media companies can use algorithms to recommend content to young users—with two bills becoming law in Arkansas and Utah. In the past month, two such bills have also been filed at the federal level.
In response to those bills, TikTok; Snap, which owns SnapChat; and Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook all told Education Week that they are committed to protecting young users on their platforms and have instituted a number of policies, including parental controls, age-based account settings that include time restrictions, and limiting the spread and discovery of harmful content.