US Surgeon General Warns on Possible Social Media Harms for Teens

“A recent advisory from U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy says there’s not enough evidence to determine whether social media is safe enough for children and adolescents when it comes to their mental health.” (Although a CNN news anchor points out that “Nearly all of the research points to negative impacts.”)

CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent interviewed U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy “to examine what led him to sound the alarm, and who should be responsible for tackling the issue.” And the surgeon general remembers when his five-year-old daughter asked to post a picture on social media. “I think finding the right balance is not easy, in part because, you know, the platforms weren’t necessarily designed for balance. They were designed to maximize how much time we spend on them.”
CNN: How worried are you? When people hear something coming from the surgeon general’s office, they think of, you know, smoking, opioids, things like this. Social media — is it at that level of concern for you?

Surgeon General: Yes, I would say yes, it is. And, and — but it’s it’s more complicated… because we know that some kids do actually get benefit from their experience of social media. Some are able to connect more easily with friends and family, to express themselves more creatively and more openly than they otherwise would, and to find community… But one of the things that has become an increasing source of worry for me is that the the association between social media use and harmful outcomes… [W]e’re asking parents to somehow figure it out all on their own. And the reason I issued an advisory on this topic is I worry that we have not taken enough action to support parents and kids…

CNN: What is the level of evidence about the dangers of social media and what is the level of evidence that you want? I mean, what does it take for you as a surgeon general to act on this…?

Surgeon General: I think the first question I’m asking is where is the evidence of safety…? There’s a lot of association data, right, that’s showing an association between use and certain and negative outcomes, like for example, for kids who who use more than 3 hours of social media a day, they face double the risk of depression and anxiety symptoms. But we also know that kids are telling us in their own words and their own experience how they’re experiencing social media. So, for example, about nearly half of adolescents are saying that using social media makes them feel worse about their body image…

And one of the consistent messages I hear from researchers who’s been studying this area for a long time is that they are having a hard time getting access to the data from social media companies. You know, as a parent, I don’t ever want to feel like someone or anyone is hiding information from me about how a product affects my child. But that’s how a lot of parents are feeling right now. And so that’s a place where I think transparency matters. Let’s get the data out there so independent researchers can assess it and can help us understand the harms and benefits and which kids are most impacted so we can design, you know, our approach, you know, in a more informed way…

One of the things we call for in my advisory is for the policymakers to step in and establish actual, transparent, enforceable safety standards like we do for other products so that parents have some reassurance around safety… This technology is already being used by 95% of kids, Right. And I don’t think that’s realistic to put the genie back in the bottle here or to say somehow nobody should be using social media, that that’s not the goal here… We don’t like leave it up to car manufacturers to determine whether or not they’ve hit the standards or not. We don’t do that with medications either. There should be, you know, independent authority that parents can trust are looking primarily in solely out for the welfare of their kids, and they should be the ones who enforce these standards….

You know, just to put it bluntly, I do not think we have done our job as a society to have the backs of kids and parents on this because we haven’t moved fast enough to get the information to ultimately guide them on safe use… [P]arents across the country, people are trying to do the best they can with limited information.

The surgeon general also says their ideal legislation would also “help to reduce kids exposure to harmful content” and include “restrictions on features that seek to manipulate kids into spending excessive amounts of time on these platforms.”