US Surgeon General Warns That Social Media May Be Harmful to Youth Mental Health

By Rob Dillard - Last Updated: May 23, 2023

There is insufficient evidence to determine if social media use is safe for the mental health of young people, according to a new U.S. surgeon general advisory.

Social media use among young people is ubiquitous, with up to 95% of teenagers, and 40% of children aged 8-12 using it. Despite its widespread use and attraction, the advisory report suggests that there isn’t enough research around social media platforms to know whether or not they are safe for youth consumption – considering that adolescence represents a “particularly vulnerable period of brain development.”

Pros/Cons of Kids Using Social Media

Children and adolescents are impacted differently by social media, and not all of its effects are bad. From a positive perspective, social media use, as noted in the advisory, “can provide benefits for some children, including by serving as a source of connection for youth who are often marginalized, such as the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities, providing positive or identity-affirming content, creating a space for self-expression, and helping youth feel accepted.”

Conversely, increasing evidence suggests there is reason for concern, because social media often exposes children and adolescents to extreme, inappropriate, and harmful content, and youth who spend over 3 hours a day on social media face a significantly higher risk of forming mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety.

The advisory went on to list a number of findings driving concern with respect to social media exposure in the youth. Some notable findings included:

  • When asked about the impact of social media on their body image: Nearly half (46%) of adolescents aged 13-17 said social media makes them feel worse about themselves.
  • Almost two-thirds (64%) of adolescents say that are “often” or “sometimes” exposed to hate-based content on social media.
  • Some platforms are depicting suicide- and self-harm related content, and this content, in some tragic cases, have been liked to childhood deaths.

Time to Take Action

The surgeon general reported that are there are “critical gaps in our understanding” of the mental health risks incurred by children and adolescents exposed to social media. They noted that the scientific community is concerned due to a dearth of access to data and a lack of transparency from the tech companies that own and operate these platforms. However, despite needing more research to discern the true impact of social media on our youth, the advisory report admonishes that “this gap in knowledge cannot be an excuse for inaction.”

It will require a multifaceted effort to mitigate the harm of social media on youth mental health, and and this effort should not rest solely on the shoulders of parents and children. “We’re in the middle of a youth mental health crisis, and I’m concerned that social media is contributing to the harm that kids are experiencing,” Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said in an interview with CNN.

“For too long, we have placed the entire burden of managing social media on the shoulders of parents and kids, despite the fact that these platforms are designed by some of the most talented engineers and designers in the world to maximize the amount of time that our kids spend on them,” Dr. Murthy continued. “So that is not a fair fight. It’s time for us to have the backs of parents and kids.”

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