PD Editorial: Surgeon general warns of social media hazards
The U.S. surgeon general is worried that social media is harming America’s youth. Join the club. Parents, teachers and pretty much everyone else have seen the effects on a generation that grew up on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
It’s easy to forget that social media is still relatively new. Twitter and Facebook launched less than 20 years ago. TikTok is less than half as old. Yet they’ve become ubiquitous, especially among young people. Ninety-five percent of youth ages 13 to 17 report using social media, and a third of them do so “almost constantly.”
It isn’t just teenagers. Although social networks are supposed to limit access to children younger than 13, researchers have found that about 40% of children aged 8 to 12 use social networks regularly.
Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a cautionary report on the effects all of this is having on young people, and it’s not just stunted social graces offline. Emerging evidence suggests that young people on social media are at increased risk of mental health and self-image problems. Spending three hours a day on social media doubles the risk of depression, anxiety and other negative mental health outcomes. Meanwhile, one study found that reducing social media time increased social and mental well-being.
The evidence is far from conclusive, though. Researchers lack hard data. Tech companies carefully guard their data and aren’t inclined to share with researchers, especially ones who might find that the product isn’t good for people.
Murthy recognizes that social networks have benefits, too. For example, young LGBTQ+ people often find support and information online. Teen girls of color also report positive experiences socializing online.
It’s a complex, nuanced situation, then. Social media has potential for good and ill. Parents, social networks and policymakers all have a role to play in encouraging positive outcomes.
For parents, Murthy’s advice is straightforward: Limit how long kids are online and model good social media behavior yourself. Ideally, children younger than 13 shouldn’t be on social media at all. It’s probably impossible to keep them away from every YouTube video, but preventing them from using Facebook and TikTok is feasible if they aren’t hooked already. When kids are online, monitor their use and watch for signs of mental health issues. Parents are the first and best line of defense.
Social media companies should embrace transparency and prioritize safety. If they share anonymized data with researchers, a much more accurate picture of how young people engage online and what effects it has could develop. That is essential for an informed public discussion. Companies also should redouble efforts to restrict access to preteens and think twice about marketing and design decisions that target young people.
Policymakers are in the toughest spot. The First Amendment limits what they can do to regulate what are at their core forums for speech. They can, however, develop standards for age-appropriate content and design that maximize youth safety. California has such a law, but it is currently tied up in court. Policymakers also could fund more research.
Social media isn’t up for a surgeon general’s warning label like the one on a pack of cigarettes yet, but Murthy’s report should serve as a warning. There are risks for young people, and adults must protect them.
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