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Surgeon General's Warning! Social Media Poses "Profound Risk of Harm" to Children and Adolescents

Update: On June 17, 2024 Breaking News: Surgeon General Vivek Murthy announced a significant proposal. He is seeking to require a warning label on social media platforms. In a ​New York Times piece​, he stated,

It is time to require a surgeon general’s warning label on social media platforms, stating that social media is associated with significant mental health harms for adolescents. A surgeon general’s warning label, which requires congressional action, would regularly remind parents and adolescents that social media has not been proved safe. Evidence from tobacco studies show that warning labels can increase awareness and change behavior.

The Surgeon General has issued a grave warning about the potential dangers of social media for children and adolescents. In a new advisory, Dr. Vivek Murthy reveals that social media carries a "profound risk of harm" to children's mental health. He says we need to take "urgent action" to create digital environments that minimize harm and safeguard children's and adolescents' mental health and well-being during critical stages of development.

If you need solid reasons to limit your child’s access to social media, keep reading!

The advisory points to studies that show social media use increases rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems in kids and teens.

Prevalence of social media use among children and adolescents

According to a Pew Research survey, up to 95% of teens ages 13–17 are using some form of social networking site. Over a third of them admitted to using it "almost constantly," prompting concerns from Dr. Murthy that age 13 is too early. Despite most platforms requiring users to be at least 13 years old in the U.S., nearly 40% of children ages 8–12 use social media.

This widespread use requires parents to be aware of social media risks and take steps to protect their child's well-being. The advisory highlights the dark side of social networking sites and identifies six specific types of damaging content, including:

  •  predatory behavior such as sexual exploitation and sextortion
  •  cyberbullying
  •  exposure to explicit content
  •  self-harm
  •  risk-taking challenges

It's a digital minefield for our kids, leading to several negative mental health outcomes associated with consuming damaging content.

How social media harms kids and teens 

The advisory identifies the following six negative mental health outcomes:

1. Increased anxiety and depression

Users are constantly bombarded with carefully curated and filtered representations of other people's lives. It's an endless loop of comparison that can lead to unrealistic standards and feelings of inadequacy. Even actress Dove Cameron admits that spending too much time on social media is "really bad" for her. She unplugged because she found her social media presence "misleading."

2. Disordered eating

Social networking sites can perpetuate harmful body image ideals and promote unhealthy relationships with food. Consuming content that glorifies extreme thinness or promotes unrealistic body standards can contribute to developing disordered eating behaviors.

3. Poor sleep quality

Several studies have found a consistent relationship between social media use and poor sleep quality. Poor sleep has been linked to altered neurological development in adolescent brains, depressive symptoms, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Nearly one-third of adolescents report using screen media until midnight or later on a typical weekday, with social media applications being the most commonly used. Some studies showed sleep quality plays a big role in the connection between social media use and negative mental health outcomes in youth.

4. Addictive behavior

Social media isn't just addictive; it's like a digital drug. Fear of missing out (FoMO) is a phenomenon that can arise from seeing posts about others' activities on social media. FoMO can lead to excessive social media use as it drives users to stay constantly connected to be in the loop. The Social Dilemma documentary explores how social networking sites are designed to exploit the brain's pleasure and reward centers keeping us hooked and craving more. This design is responsible for the addictive nature of social media and can lead to compulsive scrolling and a struggle to disconnect from the online world.

Related: Porn Addiction and Kids–Neuropsychologist Reveals Who Is Most Vulnerable: An Interview with Dr. Gola

5. Brain changes

Critical brain development in adolescents makes young individuals highly susceptible to social pressures and peer comparison. Increased risk-taking behaviors, fluctuations in well-being, and the emergence of mental health challenges such as depression characterize this period. Social media use during this period of brain development can cause changes in the brain. It affects the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, making our kids more sensitive to social rewards and punishments. This causes heightened emotional sensitivity, influenced by every piece of content they consume. Teens need to be aware of these risks to protect their developing brains.

6. Decreased attention span

Research conducted on teenagers without ADHD symptoms revealed that using social media frequently led to symptoms of ADHD. The constant distractions and multitasking inherent in social media use can make it difficult for individuals, especially children and adolescents, to maintain focus and sustain attention to tasks in the offline world.

To hear from teens themselves, see these shocking responses high schoolers gave to the prompt, “One thing my parents don’t know about social media is…”


Surgeon General's Warning! Social Media Poses "Profound Risk of Harm" to Children and Adolescents

TikTok: The Sound of an App Stealing Your Kid's Life Away


Parents can help combat the harms of social media

These alarming statistics are a wake-up call for parents everywhere. Parents can take these five proactive steps to mitigate the effects of social media on their children's developing brains.

1. Limit social media

Deactivating accounts or limiting social media use has resulted in mental health benefits. The Surgeon General's advisory found that limiting social media use to 30 minutes daily over three weeks led to significant improvements in depression severity. Deactivating it for four weeks improved well-being by 25-40% of the effect of psychological interventions like self-help therapy, group training, and individual therapy.

Dr. Justin Rowberry, a developmental pediatrician and member of our DYM Advisory Council, speaks on media overuse and its problems. Whenever a child comes in with symptoms of depression or anxiety, he automatically prescribes a phone fast and almost always sees immediate positive results.

Related: 5 Reasons Why Social Media is Not Smart for Middle School Kids

2. Establish a family technology plan

Parents can manage family screen time and social media use by creating a technology plan. "Creating a Tech Healthy Family" by Andrea Davis is a valuable resource for parents to create a personalized family plan. The American Academy of Pediatrics' Family Media Plan is another great option.

Additionally, our free Digital Safety Planner will help parents tackle the tech in three easy steps.

3. Model responsible digital habits

Parents are key role models for their children, especially regarding social media. They can set a positive example by being mindful of the content they share, promoting respect online, and taking breaks from screens to engage in real-life activities. By doing so, children can learn healthy habits and behaviors that promote a balanced and fulfilling lifestyle.

Related: Screen Time and Mental Health: Simple Life Hacks for Raising Resilient Kids

4. Collaborate with other parents

It takes a village! Collaborate with other parents to create shared norms and practices around social media use. Together, parents can implement common guidelines, such as enforcing age-appropriate restrictions, monitoring online activities, and encouraging offline social interactions. This collective effort helps create a supportive community that fosters positive digital experiences for children and adolescents.

Jennifer Garner, actress and mother of three, is part of this collective effort and has openly shared her decision to keep her girls away from social media. Garner told the hosts of TODAY that she does not allow her daughters to have social media. When they’ve asked for social media, she tells them, "Show me the articles that prove that social media is good for teenagers, and then we'll have the conversation. Find scientific evidence that matches what I have that says that it's not good for teenagers, then we'll chat." She added that her 17-year-old daughter, Violet, has appreciated being away from social media.

This inspiring example set by Garner reminds us of the importance of evidence-based decision-making. Working together is the only way we can create a nurturing community that champions the well-being of young minds in the digital age.

Related: Swimming Upstream: How to Share Your Family's Media Standards with Other Parents

5. Embrace alternative options

There is a growing movement among Gen Z to ditch social media and smartphones. Instead, many Gen Z-ers are choosing flip phones to digitally disconnect. Celebs such as Dove Cameron, Ed Sheeran, and Camila Cabello have been open about unplugging and embracing flip phones.

Other options include tech-healthy smartphones such as Pinwheel, Gabb (click link for $25 off), Troomi (code DEFEND for $50 off), and Bark, with apps curated to optimize mental health and no browser. These alternatives defend young minds from the harmful effects of social networking sites. When you make a purchase through these affiliate links you are supporting our work here at Defend Young Minds.

Social media isn't all negative. It provides connection to friends and family. Online communities and support groups found on social networking sites help users collaborate with neighbors and receive support for various life situations. However, it’s critical to weigh the benefits against the harms. The Surgeon General's advisory makes it clear that the scale is tipped in favor of harm.

Parents can mitigate these harms and encourage digital disconnection or digital minimalism by implementing these five strategies. They will lead to healthier relationships with technology, offer more real-life interactions, lower the risk of encountering pornography and sexual exploitation, and buoy mental health. 

Brain Defense: Digital Safety Curriculum - Family Edition

"Parents are desperate for concepts and language like this to help their children. They would benefit so much from this program - and I think it would spur much needed conversations between parents and children.” --Jenet Erikson, parent

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