Surgeon General Issues Advisory Over Harmful Effects of Social Media on Kids

The advisory follows a "loneliness epidemic" declaration and comes amid a youth mental health crisis. It also outlines some benefits teens find from online communities.

Jessica Rendall Wellness Writer
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Jessica Rendall
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US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy on Tuesday issued an advisory about the harmful effects social media has on children and young people, especially when it comes to their mental health. 

Teenagers spent an average of 3.5 hours per day on social media in 2021, according to a news release that accompanied the report.

Young people find many benefits of using social media, including finding connections with others going through similar experiences or having a place to display their creativity, but there are "ample indicators" social media can harm children and adolescents, according to the surgeon general. 

For example, social media may expose young people to content that encourages disordered eating habits or social comparisons, or even content that's violent or shows others being bullied. What's more, social media may also be influencing the health of young people by interfering with their sleep, physical activity and real-world interactions with people, according to the surgeon general. 

"We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis, and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis -- one that we must urgently address," Murthy said in a news release.

Recommendations for action outlined in the advisory include many of the same stakeholders that have been called to action at different points when it comes to young people using social media. This includes calling for policymakers to "strengthen safety standards and limit access," encouraging researchers to prioritize youth mental health, and asking tech companies to "more transparently assess the impact of their products on children." 

The advisory also recommends kids themselves adopt healthier practices online, including blocking distressing content and being vocal and reaching out to someone else if they encounter bullying or harassment online -- either of themselves or another person.

Read more: How Sleep Affects Your Mental Health

How social media affects kids -- for better and worse

The brains of adolescents, ages 10 to 16, are undergoing a "highly sensitive" period of development, according to research cited in the report. This is the same period where risk-taking behaviors (sometimes encouraged on social media) and mental health problems like depression (symptoms of which might be exacerbated on social media) typically emerge. 

Many reasons social media can be harmful to kids are outlined in the report, including the fact that it may lay addictive pathways in the brain and the fact that it may introduce easier access to potentially dangerous strangers into kids' lives. According to a 2023 report from Common Sense Media titled How Girls Really Feel About Social Media, which was cited in the advisory, a significant portion of adolescent girls surveyed who use Instagram (58%), Snapchat (57%) and TikTok (46%) had been contacted by a stranger through the platform in ways that made them feel "uncomfortable."

One major benefit of social media for young people, however, is that it may connect them to others with similar experiences that they otherwise wouldn't have met. According to the report, research shows that social media may support the well-being of young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer by providing more identity and peer support. 

Seven out of 10 girls of color also report "encountering positive or identity-affirming content related to race," the advisory said, citing the same 2023 report on how adolescent girls relate to social media.

"The reality is, teens' relationships with social media are complicated," Common Sense founder James P. Steyer said in the forward of the report on girls and social media. "They know that it isn't always the best for them, but it plays a huge role in how they experience the world and build and support their relationships. They aren't likely to stop using it, but we have a chance to make it work better for them." 

Read more: Teens, Social Media Use and Mental Health: What You Really Need to Know

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.