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You Should Read U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Effects of Social Media on Youth Mental Health

On Tuesday, the United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an advisory warning of the effects of social media on youth mental health.

“A Surgeon General’s Advisory is a public statement that calls the American people’s attention to an urgent public health issue and provides recommendations for how it should be addressed. Advisories are reserved for significant public health challenges that require the nation’s immediate awareness and action,” said the 19-page document which was developed from “available evidence” from research and experts-suggested sources.

According to PEW Research Centre, 95% of U.S. youth ages 13–17 report using a social media platform, with more than a third saying they use social media “almost constantly.” The advisory stated that despite the widespread of social media use by adolescents and youth, there’s not enough research on its effect on mental health.

Here are 10 notable points from the advisory:

  • It stated that while there are negative effects, there are also positive impacts of social media in adolescents and youth. It stated that adolescents, ages 10 – 19, are in a sensitive period in their brain development. This is when mental health challenges like depression typically emerge, when emotions are impacted, identities are developed and sense of self worth is forming. As a result, frequent social media use can cause heightened emotional sensitivity among adolescents due to the communicative and interactive nature of social media.
  • In terms of benefits, the advisory stated that social media can help provide a positive connect among adolescents who share identities, interests, and abilities. And can also be a source of information for young people.
  • The advisory cited a JAMA Psychiatry study which stated that adolescents who spent more than 3 hours per day on social media faced double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes including symptoms of depression and anxiety. Another source cited is a study in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology which stated that limiting social media use to 30 minutes daily among college-age youth led to significant improvements in depression severity.
  • The advisory found access to extreme, harmful, and inappropriate content by adolescents, through social media, a risk factor for these youth normalising such behaviours. It also cited the problem of cyberbullying, and exposure to predators as some of the problems associated with social media content.
  • The advisory also noted that excessive use of social media has been linked to sleep problems, attention problems, and feelings of exclusion among adolescents.
  • While the advisory stated that there’s not enough evidence to conclude that social media is sufficiently safe for adolescents, Murthy prescribed some recommendations for various stakeholders.
  • Murthy recommended that policymakers should develop stronger health and safety standards, especially in relation to adolescents’ data, demand that technology companies share data relating to the health impacts of their platforms, and encourage digital literacy in schools.
  • The advisory also enjoined technology companies to not only create default settings with higher safety and privacy standards to protect adolescents, but also enforce their minimum age requirements, which is mostly 12/13 years. It also called on them to conduct independent research on the impact of their platforms on adolescents, and share relevant findings to authorities.
  • For parents and guardians, Murthy encouraged creating a “social media plan,” fostering in-person relationships, and modelling responsible social media behaviour as some of the steps it can take to limit the negative mental health impacts of social media on their children.
  • Children were also encouraged to reach out for help at any time, ensure they protect their privacy, and not take part in online bullying and harassment.

Read the entire advisory here. And a short summary here.

Photo Credit: LinkedIn/Dr Vivek Murthy

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