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Social media can be a ‘profound risk’ to youth, surgeon general warns

The surgeon general called on policymakers, tech companies, researchers and parents to “urgently take action” to safeguard against the potential risks.

By Catherine Pearson and Matt Richtel

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy issued a public advisory Tuesday warning of the risks of social media use to young people. In a 19-page report, Murthy noted that although the effects of social media on adolescent mental health were not fully understood, and that social media can be beneficial to some users, “there are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”

The surgeon general called on policymakers, tech companies, researchers and parents to “urgently take action” to safeguard against the potential risks.

Why it matters: Young brains are particularly susceptible to social media.

“Adolescents are not just smaller adults,” Murthy said in an interview with The New York Times about the advisory. “They’re in a different phase of development, and they’re in a critical phase of brain development.”

The report noted that “frequent social media use may be associated with distinct changes in the developing brain in the amygdala (important for emotional learning and behavior) and the prefrontal cortex (important for impulse control, emotional regulation and moderating social behavior), and could increase sensitivity to social rewards and punishments.”

The report also cited research indicating that up to 95% of teens reported using at least one social media platform, while more than one-third said they used social media “almost constantly.” In addition, nearly 40% of children ages 8 to 12 use social media, even though the required minimum age for most sites is 13.

Researchers have been struggling to understand the impact of social media use on teen mental health. The data are not straightforward and indicate that the effects can be both positive and negative. For instance, social media enables some young people to connect with others, find community and express themselves.

But social media also brims with “extreme, inappropriate and harmful content,” the advisory noted, including content that “normalizes” self-harming, eating disorders and other destructive behavior. Cyberbullying is rampant. And the rise in social media use has coincided with declines in exercise, sleep and other activities considered vital to the developing brain.

Moreover, social media spaces can be fraught for young people especially, the advisory added: “In early adolescence, when identities and sense of self-worth are forming, brain development is especially susceptible to social pressures, peer opinions, and peer comparison.”

Background: The increased scrutiny comes amid a mental health crisis among American youth.

The advisory joins a growing number of calls for action around adolescents and social media, as experts probe what role it may play in the ongoing teen mental health crisis. This month, the American Psychological Association issued its first-ever social media guidance, recommending that parents closely monitor teens’ usage and that tech companies reconsider features like endless scrolling and the “like” button.

What’s next: The surgeon general is calling for immediate action.

In the advisory, Murthy expressed an “urgent need” for clarity on several research fronts. They include the types of social media content that cause harm; whether particular neurological pathways, such as those involving reward and addiction, are affected; and which strategies could be used to protect the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.“Our children have become unknowing participants in a decadeslong experiment,” Murthy wrote. “It is critical that independent researchers and technology companies work together to rapidly advance our understanding of the impact of social media on children and adolescents.”

Murthy also acknowledged that, until now, “the burden of protecting youth has fallen predominantly on children, adolescents, and their families.”

“That’s a lot to ask of parents — to take a new technology that’s rapidly evolving and that fundamentally changes how kids perceive themselves” and ask parents to manage it, Murthy told The Times. “So we’ve got to do what we do in other areas where we have product safety issues, which is to set in place safety standards that parents can rely on, that are actually enforced.”

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