The Office of the US Surgeon General, under the leadership of US surgeon general Vivek Murthy, has released an official advisory that states social media can have both positive and negative impacts on the emotional wellbeing of American youth.
About 95% of children aged 13 to 17 use social media, according to the report, and almost 40% of children aged 8 to 12 use social media. Individuals usually need to be at least 13 years old to create an account on a social media site. But it’s easy to circumvent these age restrictions by simply inputting a fake birth date.
The report states more research needs to be conducted to quantify the harm of social media to kids under 13. But it also acknowledges that parents, teachers, and researchers are becoming more aware — and concerned — about under 13s freely accessing social media.
The extensive use of social media is an issue that’s discussed among lawmakers, even at the federal level. When TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified in front of Congress, members asked him how his company plans to address the large number of young children on the app who see explicit and harmful content.
US lawmakers have introduced legislation prohibiting children under 13 from creating an account on social media apps. Other bills require parental consent for children aged 13 to 17 to create a social media account.
Some legislation targets Big Tech and suggests the firms should execute minor safety risk assessments, opting children out of algorithmic recommendations, and giving parents more control over their children’s digital footprint.
Keeping minority groups connected
The Office of the US Surgeon General’s report states that social media can benefit some young people who are seeking a community online. These online communities can be beneficial for marginalized youth who are seeking guidance on racial, gender, and sexual concerns.
Children from minority groups might find it hard to fit in at school and can find solace when they can connect with similar people online. The report states that 58% of adolescents find more acceptance on social media, 71% find enjoyment in being creative online, and 80% enjoy being connected and informed about what’s going on in their friends’ lives.
Experiencing depression and anxiety
The importance of observing and preserving mental health has become a normalized topic of discussion in recent years, especially in online forums. But spending a prolonged amount of time on social media can also contribute to poor mental health.
The report cites a longitudinal study that found that American children aged 12 to 15 who spend more than three hours a day on social media are more likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety.
These adverse outcomes are more prevalent in young girls, according to research. In particular, young girls experience issues with body image and disordered eating behaviors due to social media use. In 2021, a Facebook whistleblower revealed that Instagram’s algorithm pushed harmful body image and disordered eating content to young girls — and the company was aware.
The report also cites research that concludes teens are getting less sleep due to problematic, compulsive, or excessive social media use. Poor sleep quality, decreased attention, and mood disorders are linked to using social media until midnight or later in adolescents.
Keeping our kids safe online
The report says policymakers can mitigate some of these issues by strengthening protections to ensure the safety of minors online, requiring a higher standard of data privacy for minors, and vigorously enforcing age minimums.
The report also suggests policymakers should collaborate with international partners to protect children online, ensure tech companies are sharing data about the impact of their platforms, and support the implementation of digital media literacy in schools.
Tech companies should create products and tools that encourage a safe environment for minors online, establish advisory committees to monitor and enforce policies to keep children safe online, and ensure default settings are created to keep children’s data secure.
Parents and caregivers should encourage tech-free zones in their homes and plan as much face-to-face time with their children as possible. They should also model appropriate behaviors online, talk to other parents about their stance on social media, and have open conversations with their children about online safety.