While social media use by teens is near ubiquitous, the U.S. Surgeon General is warning that the mental health impacts are still not fully known—and has called on tech companies to “take immediate action to mitigate unintended negative effects.”
Dr. Vivek Murthy noted that while children under 13 are technically banned from signing up for services like TikTok, Snapchat, and more, children have been able to easily join and bypass limitations. Up to 95% of kids between the ages of 13 and 17 report using a social media platform, with more than a third saying they use social media “almost constantly,” according to a new report from the Surgeon General.
Acknowledging that more research is necessary and that there could be some benefits for adolescents, Murthy warned “there are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents. At this time, we do not yet have enough evidence to determine if social media is sufficiently safe for children and adolescents.”
The report hinted at a call for more government oversight of social media companies. The U.S., it said, has a history of regulating things that impact children, ranging from toys to medications.
“Given the mounting evidence for the risk of harm to some children and adolescents from social media use, a safety-first approach should be applied in the context of social media products,” it read.
Of particular concern is the effect of social media on brain development. Adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19, it says, are in a period where risk-taking behaviors reach their highest levels and when depression and other mental health issues often emerge. That age is also where children’s sense of self-worth begins to manifest. Social media can severely affect that development.
“Frequent social media use may be associated with distinct changes in the developing brain in the amygdala (important for emotional learning and behavior) and the prefrontal cortex (important for impulse control, emotional regulation, and moderating social behavior), and could increase sensitivity to social rewards and punishments,” Murthy warned. “As such, adolescents may experience heightened emotional sensitivity to the communicative and interactive nature of social media.”
While it’s easy to dismiss the problem of children on social media as a parenting issue, Murthy’s report said that’s oversimplifying things.
“Parents face significant challenges in managing children and adolescents’ use of social media applications, and youth are using social media at increasingly earlier ages,” it reads. “While nearly all parents believe they have a responsibility to protect their children from inappropriate content online, the entire burden of mitigating the risk of harm of social media cannot be placed on the shoulders of children and parents.”