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Surgeon general sounds alarm on social media

Murthy urges parents, platforms to act ‘to protect kids now’

By BARBARA ORTUTAY, Associated Press
Published: May 25, 2023, 6:04am

The U.S. surgeon general is warning there is not enough evidence to show that social media is safe for children and teens — and is calling on tech companies, parents and caregivers to take “immediate action to protect kids now.”

With young people’s social media use “near universal” but its true impact on mental health not fully understood, Dr. Vivek Murthy is asking tech companies to share data and increase transparency with researchers and the public and prioritize users’ health and safety when designing their products.

“I recognize technology companies have taken steps to try to make their platforms healthier and safer, but it’s simply not enough,” Murthy told The Associated Press in an interview. “You can just look at the age requirements, where platforms have said 13 is the age at which people can start using their platforms. Yet 40 percent of kids 8 through 12 are on social media. How does that happen if you’re actually enforcing your policies?”

To comply with federal regulation, social media companies already ban kids under 13 from signing up to their platforms — but children have been shown to easily get around the bans, both with and without their parents’ consent.

Eight Tips on Social Media Use

The U.S. surgeon general is calling for tech companies and lawmakers to take “immediate action” to protect kids’ and adolescents’ mental health on social media.

But after years of insufficient action by both social media platforms and policymakers, parents and young people still bear most of the burden in navigating the fast-changing, often harmful world of secretive algorithms, addictive apps and extreme and inappropriate content found on platforms such as Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat.

So what can parents and young people do now? Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has some tips.

TIPS FOR YOUNG PEOPLE

  • Reach out for help: If you or someone you know is being negatively affected by social media, reach out to a trusted friend or adult for help. Check the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidance on social media.
  • Create boundaries: Limit the use of phones, tablets, and computers for at least one hour before bedtime and through the night to make sure you get enough sleep. Keep mealtimes and in-person gatherings device-free to help build social bonds and engage in two-way conversations with others. Connect with people in person and make unplugged interactions a daily priority.
  • Be cautious about what you share: Personal information about you has value. Be selective with what you post and share online and with whom, as it is often public and can be stored permanently. If you aren’t sure if you should post something, it’s usually best if you don’t.
  • Don’t keep harassment or abuse a secret: Reach out to at least one person you trust, such as a close friend, family member, counselor, or teacher, who can give you the help and support you deserve. Visit stopbullying.gov for tips on how to report cyberbullying. If you have experienced online harassment and abuse by a dating partner, contact an expert at Love is Respect for support. If your private images have been taken and shared online without your permission, visit Take It Down to help get them removed.

TIPS FOR PARENTS AND CAREGIVERS

  • Create a family media plan: Agreed-upon expectations can help establish healthy technology boundaries at home — including social media use. A family media plan can promote open family discussion and rules about media use and include topics such as balancing screen/online time, content boundaries, and not disclosing personal information.
  • Create tech-free zones: Restrict the use of electronics at least one hour before bedtime and through the night. Keep meal times and other in-person gatherings tech-free. Help children develop social skills and nurture their in-person relationships by encouraging unstructured and offline connections with others.
  • Model responsible behavior: Parents can set a good example of what responsible and healthy social media use looks like by limiting their own use, being mindful of social media habits (including when and how parents share information or content about their child), and modeling positive behavior on your social media accounts.
  • Empower kids: Teach kids about technology and empower them to be responsible online participants at the appropriate age. Discuss with children the benefits and risks of social media as well as the importance of respecting privacy and protecting personal information in age-appropriate ways. Have conversations with children about who they are connecting with, their privacy settings, their online experiences, and how they are spending their time online.

Other measures social platforms have taken to address concerns about children’s mental health are also easily circumvented. For instance, TikTok recently introduced a default 60-minute time limit for users under 18. But once the limit is reached, minors can simply enter a passcode to keep watching.

It’s not that the companies are unaware of the harms their platforms are causing. Meta, for instance, studied the effects of Instagram on teens’ mental health years ago and found that the peer pressure generated by the visually focused app led to mental health and body-image problems, and in some cases, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts in teens — especially in girls. One internal study cited 13.5 percent of teen girls saying Instagram makes thoughts of suicide worse and 17 percent of teen girls saying it makes eating disorders worse.

The research was revealed in 2021 by whistleblower Frances Haugen. Meta sought to downplay the harmful effects of its platform on teens at the time, but put on hold its work on a kids’ version of Instagram, which the company says is meant mainly for tweens aged 10 to 12.

“The bottom line is we do not have enough evidence to conclude that social media is, in fact, sufficiently safe for our kids. And that’s really important for parents to know,” said Murthy, who’s been traveling around the country talking to parents and young people about the youth mental health crisis. “The most common question I get from parents is whether social media is safe for their kids.”

Policymakers need to address the harms of social media the same way they regulate things like car seats, baby formula, medication and other products children use, Murthy said in a report published Tuesday. Parents — and kids — simply can’t do it all.

“We’re asking parents to manage a technology that’s rapidly evolving that fundamentally changes how their kids think about themselves, how they build friendships, how they experience the world — and technology, by the way, that prior generations never had to manage,” Murthy said. “And we’re putting all of that on the shoulders of parents, which is just simply not fair.”

While Murthy is calling for more research, he says there is ample evidence now that social media can have a “profound risk of harm” on the mental health and well-being of children and teenagers.

One critical factor is children’s brain development. Adults can suffer from the harmful effects of social media. But children and adolescents are at a “fundamentally different stage of brain development, where the pathways in their brains, their social relationships, their self-esteem and identity are all under development,” Murthy said. “And in this case, they’re even more prone to be influenced by social cues, social pressure and social comparison — and those three things exist in overwhelming abundance on social media.”

In fact, frequent social media use may be associated with “distinct changes” in the developing brain, and could increase sensitivity to social rewards and punishments, according to a study cited in the surgeon general’s report.

How and how often they use social media, as well as extreme, inappropriate and harmful content they see could have profound effects on kids’ and teens’ mental health.

And research shows they are using it a lot. Up to 95 percent of youth ages 13 to 17 report using a social media platform, with more than a third saying they use social media “almost constantly,” according to the Pew Research Center.

A systematic review of 42 studies found a “consistent relationship between social media use and poor sleep quality, reduced sleep duration, sleep difficulties, and depression among youth.” On a typical weekday, nearly one in three adolescents report using screen media until midnight or later.

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What they see on social media also matters. From being bombarded by unrealistic body images to a culture of “hyper-comparison” to bullying, hate and abuse, Murthy said he’s worried that its effects on young people’s mental health are showing up in the “disturbing mental health statistics that we are seeing in our country, which are telling us that depression, anxiety, suicide, loneliness are all going up.”

Murthy’s report doesn’t tell young people to stop using social media altogether. There are benefits, too. It’s where teens can find a community and have a space for self-expression. LGBTQ+ youth, in particular, have been shown to benefit from social media through connecting with peers, developing an identity and finding social support.

“For every family, it may not be feasible to stop your child from using social media or there may be benefit,” Murthy said. “But drawing boundaries around the use of social media in your child’s life so there are times and spaces that are protected, that are tech free, that can be really helpful.”

Murthy’s own children are 5 and 6, but like many parents, he’s already thinking about their future on social media.

“We are planning to delay the use of social media for our kids until after middle school,” he said. “And you know, that’s not going to be easy. But we’re hoping to find other parents and families that we can partner with to make this a little easier, because we know there’s strength in numbers and sometimes making changes on your own is hard.”

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