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U.S. surgeon general issues social media warning

A surgeon general’s advisory is a statement that calls the American people’s attention to an urgent public health issue.

MINNEAPOLIS — "My day to day work I spend a lot of time with teenagers who need more mental health support," said Dr. Joshua Stein, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at PrairieCare.

He's used to helping young people navigate through mental health concerns, including the effects of social media on children and teens.

"Really in the last 10-15 years, or even in the last five years, we're talking about digital health and what it means to be digitally healthy," he said.

And according to an advisory released today by the U.S. Surgeon General's Office, social media use among young people is nearly universal, with up to 95% of teenagers, and 40% of children aged 8-12, on apps.

"What the surgeon general came out with is greater than 3 hours a day is concerning, and shows risk of development or attention issues," said Dr. Stein.

But despite this widespread use among young people, the study shows there's still not enough evidence to determine if social media use is safe.

"Two themes come up - one is the overt danger of being preyed upon, misled, or sharing something personal, the other side is insidious, the constant exposure of people having fun, the normalization of at risk behaviors," said Dr. Stein.

Dr. Stein says while there are pros and cons, when it comes to what's driving the growing concerns, "there's a lot of detriment to it," he said. "There's risk, lack of functioning, sleep disruption," he said. "I see this as something we are starting to talk about more."

According to the advisory: 

  • Social media can expose children to content that presents risks of harm.
  • Social media may perpetuate body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviors, social comparison, and low self-esteem, especially among adolescent girls.
  • When asked about the impact of social media on their body image: 46% of adolescents aged 13-17 said social media makes them feel worse, 40% said it makes them feel neither better nor worse, and only 14% said it makes them feel better.
  • Roughly two-thirds (64%) of adolescents are “often” or “sometimes” exposed to hate-based content.
  • Some social media platforms show suicide- and self-harm-related content including even live depictions of self-harm acts, content which, in certain tragic cases, has been linked to childhood deaths. Social media use can be excessive and problematic for some children.
  • On a typical weekday, nearly one-in-three adolescents report using screens (most commonly social media) until midnight or later.
  • Studies have shown a relationship between excessive social media use and poor sleep quality, reduced sleep duration, sleep difficulties and depression among youth.
  • One-third or more of girls aged 11-15 say they feel “addicted” to certain social media platforms and over half of teenagers report that it would be hard to give up social media.

Immediate actions outlined in survey:

  • Policymakers can take steps to strengthen safety standards and limit access in ways that make social media safer for children of all ages, better protect children’s privacy, support digital and media literacy, and fund additional research.
  • Technology companies can better and more transparently assess the impact of their products on children, share data with independent researchers to increase our collective understanding of the impacts, make design and development decisions that prioritize safety and health – including protecting children’s privacy and better adhering to age minimums – and improve systems to provide effective and timely responses to complaints. 
  • Parents and caregivers can make plans in their households such as establishing tech-free zones that help protect sleep and better foster in-person relationships, teach children and adolescents about responsible online behavior, and model that behavior, and report problematic content and activity.
  • Children and adolescents can adopt healthy practices like limiting time on platforms, blocking unwanted content, being careful about sharing personal information, and reaching out if they or a friend need help or see harassment or abuse on the platforms. 
  • Researchers can further prioritize social media and youth mental health research that can support the establishment of standards and evaluation of best practices to support children’s health.


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