Experts hail US surgeon general’s social media warning for youth mental health

(OSV News) ─ For parents still wondering if social media can be harmful to their children’s mental health, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a warning on May 23: “We are in the middle of of a national youth mental health crisis, and I am concerned that social media is a significant driver of this crisis – a cause that we must urgently address.”

The “Surgeon General’s Advisory on Social Media and Youth Mental Health” is comprised of 21 pages of detail and statistics summarized succinctly in the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) press release: ” Although social media may offer some benefits, there are many indications that social media may also pose a risk of harming the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.

Since HHS reports that nearly 95% of 13-17 year olds use social media – more than one in three say they are on social media “almost constantly” – the scope of Murthy’s concern is almost universal. .

“The most common question I get from parents is, ‘Is social media safe for my kids.’ The answer is that we don’t have enough evidence to say it’s safe, and in fact, there is growing evidence that social media use is associated with harming the mental health of young people,” Murthy noted in the same press release. “Children are exposed to harmful content on social media , ranging from violent and sexual content to bullying and harassment. And for too many children, social media use compromises their sleep and precious in-person time with family and friends.”

Experts told OSV News they welcomed the surgeon general’s announcement.

“The surgeon general’s report not only asks for something to be done, it asks for something to be done quickly,” said Amanda Raffoul, an instructor in the Harvard Medical School’s department of pediatrics and a member of the division of adolescents and medicine. for young adults at Boston Children’s Hospital.

“I think the Surgeon General’s report can help amplify some of the concerns that the research community – as well as in policy and children’s mental health more broadly – have had over the past two years,” said Raffoul told OSV News. “It does not call for a complete ban or a complete restriction of social media for minors, but it does point out some pathways for policy makers – and in particular social media platforms – to help ensure that children can be online and have it safe and not harmful to them.”

HHS notes that “among the benefits, teens report that social media helps them feel more accepted (58%), like they have people who can support them through difficult times (67%), like s ‘they had a place to show their creative side (71%), and more connected to what’s going on in their friends’ lives (80%).”

Nevertheless, excessive use of social media carries serious consequences, with HHS observing that “recent research shows that adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media are at double risk of performing poorly in mental health issues, such as symptoms of depression and anxiety, yet a 2021 survey of teens found that, on average, they spend 3.5 hours a day on social media. also perpetuate body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviors, social comparison, and low self-esteem, especially among teenage girls.

Almost half (46%) of teens aged 13-17 said social media made them feel worse about their body image. Hateful social media content is also “often” or “sometimes” encountered by 64% of teens.

“As a parent, access to social media for our children is like a Pandora’s box,” said Kristin Bird, a mother of three who has written on the topic of using social media for Catholic ministry. of Life Teen Youth, and also leads Wisconsin. parochial and diocesan consulting firm Burning Hearts Disciples.

“It seems that it would be much easier to avoid social media altogether than to revoke access once it has been granted or to try to repair the psychological, social and spiritual damage caused by social media. after they happened,” Bird told OSV News. “The key is to strike a balance that helps protect our children and gradually allow age-appropriate technologies as our children demonstrate they can maturely handle them.”

“On the one hand, it comes too late for children and young adults who are already experiencing the adverse effects,” Bird observed. “On the other hand: better late than never!”

Bird emphasizes the role that parents must play.

“Social media legislation will undoubtedly help parents, but we cannot rely on the government to do our job for us,” she said. “We need to take responsibility for keeping our children safe and have conversations with them about the dangers of social media, just as we need to talk to them about the dangers of alcohol, drugs and other risky behaviors. “

Jessica Heldman, a professor of children’s rights at the University of San Diego and a member of its Children’s Advocacy Institute, said big tech companies must still be held accountable for harm to young people.

“They learn to starve, hurt and hate themselves by replacing sleep and healthy activity with hours spent on social media,” Heldman said of adolescent social media users. “Yet social media platforms continue to take advantage of algorithms and design features that push child-harmful content and make it nearly impossible to opt out of their platforms.”

“This review focuses on what’s really at stake,” Heldman told OSV News, “and it dispels any idea that social media platforms are somehow so different from other products that they should be. allowed to operate with impunity”.

Christopher McKenna, digital security expert, founder of Protect Young Eyes, and keynote speaker at the National Catholic Educational Association’s 2022 conference, noted that “in today’s culture, we tend to treat children as if they were mini-adults. And that’s just plain wrong. . Childhood is unique. Children’s brains are unique. They are in a unique phase of development.”

“Technology doesn’t treat us differently,” McKenna told OSV News. “So we put kids, with kids’ brains…inside these extremely smart technologies. The smartest software engineers on the planet are building these technologies. And then we get upset when these kids take decisions like children, inside technologies that were never designed for them in the first place.”

McKenna welcomed HHS policy suggestions, which include policymakers strengthening security and privacy standards; greater transparency of technology companies; parental instruction to children on responsible behavior online; limitation of time spent online by children; and prioritization by researchers to establish standards and evaluation of social media.

“We are experimenting on children,” McKenna said. “We can’t wait for science to catch up with the experience that parents and educators are observing firsthand.”
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Kimberley Heatherington writes for OSV News from Virginia.

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