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Social media can put young people in danger, U.S. surgeon general warns

In a new advisory released Tuesday, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warns that social media could pose dangers to children and teens.
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In a new advisory released Tuesday, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warns that social media could pose dangers to children and teens.

Updated May 23, 2023 at 3:16 PM ET

Social media can present a real risk to the mental health of children and teenagers because of the ways their brains are affected by the amount of time they spend using it, the U.S. surgeon general warns in a new advisory released Tuesday.

"Teens who use social media for more than three hours a day face double the risk of depression and anxiety symptoms, which is particularly concerning given that the average amount of time that kids use social media is 3 1/2 hours a day," the Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy told Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep.

According to the advisory, 95% of teenagers ages 13-17 say they use a social media app, and more than a third say they use it "almost constantly." The Social Media and Youth Mental Health advisory says social media can perpetuate "body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviors, social comparison, and low self-esteem, especially among adolescent girls."

Nearly 1 in 3 adolescents report using screens until midnight or later, the advisory says. And most are using social media during that time.

Do children and adolescents have adequate safeguards for social media? The data reveal that there isn't enough evidence yet to make a clear determination. "What we need to know is not only the full extent of impact," said Murthy, "but which kids are most impacted in terms of benefits and harms."

He called on tech companies, researchers, families and policymakers to do more to understand the vulnerabilities facing young people and figure out standards to help them stay safe and healthy.

"I call for specific action from technology companies, from policymakers, because we need safety standards for social media," Murthy said.

He joined Morning Edition to discuss the new advisory, what children are saying about social media, and what steps can be taken by the government to increase regulation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights

On the connection between social media and depression among children

Most kids tell me three things about social media. It makes them feel worse about themselves or worse about their friendships, but they can't get off it.

The bottom line is we do not have enough evidence to conclude that social media is, in fact, sufficiently safe for our kids.

And it's not even just the risk of depression and anxiety symptoms. But we find that nearly half of adolescents are saying that social media makes them feel worse about their body image.

On evidence gaps in his advisory's research

What we need to know is not only the full extent of impact, but which kids are most impacted in terms of benefits and harms. We also need to understand more about the mechanisms through which social media confers potential harms.

On what needs to be done

I call for specific action from technology companies, from policymakers — because we need safety standards for social media the way we have for cars, for car seats, for toys, for medications, and for other products that kids use — [so] their parents have more assurance that these products are safe for their kids.

With safety standards in this case, with social media, you want to ensure that ... these standards call for measures that protect kids from exposure to harmful content, that protect them from harassment online, particularly from strangers.

What we need are standards ... and measures that reduce the likelihood kids will be exposed to features that will manipulate them to spend more time on these platforms at the expense of their health.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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David West Jr.