The era of “screenagers” has been going on for a while now. Parents of teenagers know it well.
How many times, mom and dad, have you smoldered at the sight of your adolescent mesmerized by his smartphone at the dinner table, or in a restaurant, or while visiting grandpa and grandma? You can admonish them with witticisms such as “Your brain is melting!” but you’ll probably end up with a swollen growl or a long dose of side eye.
Well, mom and dad, there’s someone who feels your pain. US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.
This week, Murthy released an advisory on the pros and cons of social media and its impact on the mental health of American adolescents – along with concrete steps policymakers and parents can take to minimize the harm of too much screen time .
Past Surgeons General have issued advisories and reports that have led to a healthier, smarter America. In 1964, Surgeon General Luther Terry released a groundbreaking report that linked smoking to lung cancer and set the country on track to drastically cut back on its love affair with cigarettes. In the 1980s, C. Everett Koop cleared up misconceptions about HIV and AIDS, redefined the disease as chronic but preventable, and formulated commonsense measures such as using condoms for safer sex. Murthy’s report “Social Media and Youth Mental Health” belongs on the same shelf.
His work should be required reading for legislators, researchers, parents, and yes, teens themselves. It highlights the ubiquity of social media in the adolescent world, noting that up to 95% of teens aged 13 to 17 report using a social media platform. An even more disturbing statistic: almost 40% of children between the ages of 8 and 12 use social media.
Murthy doesn’t paint social media as a horrible poison that needs to be suppressed. He even highlights its benefits as a conduit for connection with peers and friends who share interests and identities. It can also provide an avenue for self-expression and sometimes even enlightenment. Teens report that social media keeps them glued to what’s going on in their friends’ lives and makes them feel like they have people to turn to during tough times, says Murthy.
But as the report points out, the downside of social media’s impact on teens is very real and concerning.
Social media platforms are built to maximize user engagement through a variety of tools, including likes, push notifications, and algorithms that turn user data into recommendations on what content to watch. We’re all bombarded by the tricks of the trade of social media, of course, but Murthy’s concern is that the audience includes teenagers and their developing brains. Some studies have found that “people with frequent and problematic social media use may experience changes in brain structure similar to changes seen in individuals with substance abuse or gambling addiction,” the report states.
Murthy cites other data that should raise red flags for parents. A survey conducted this year by the Common Sense research group found that a third of girls between the ages of 11 and 15 said they feel addicted to a social media platform. Nearly one in three teens report being on their screen until midnight or later. And a survey of eighth and tenth graders found that they spent an average of 3.5 hours a day on social media, and that 1 in 7 teens who participated in that study spent seven hours or more on social media a day.
Murthy has a clever way of determining what needs to be done — the US is safety first when it comes to minimizing risk in the case of toys (toy safety standards), driving (airbags and seatbelts), and pharmaceuticals (Food and Drug Administration). control and approval before use). Why not take a safety-first approach to social media?
He proposes a series of common sense remedies that we wholeheartedly endorse. To be there, the people who run Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and other social media platforms need to stand up and take responsibility for the impact their products and services have on teens and children, and enable independent assessments of that impact. When they come up with a new product or service, they should prioritize the mental health and well-being of teens and children, regardless of the profit that entails.
Lawmakers should set and enforce age-appropriate health and safety standards that protect children from harmful content and limit the use of features primarily aimed at maximizing screen time and engagement. Murthy also urges policymakers to ensure that notoriously secretive tech companies share their data on their platforms’ impact on teens and children with researchers. He points out that there’s still a lot about the intersection of teens and social media that America doesn’t know about, so making sure researchers get the funding they need should be a legislative priority.
Crucially, Murthy has recommendations for parents and teens: Create a “family media plan” that sets limits on social media use at home. Consider limiting screen time to no more than an hour before bed and keeping meals and social visits device-free. Have meaningful discussions with teens about how they spend their time online, who they interact with, and their privacy settings. That’s Parenting 101 of course – stronger engagement with your kids almost always leads to healthier, happier kids.
Murthy, who impressed us when he came to talk to us last winter on a visit to Chicago, doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. But what’s commendable is that he recognizes the need for Americans to get to grips with the relationship between social media and adolescents — and ensure that child welfare is above every other priority.
We think parents will embrace his guidance. We hope legislators and CEOs of tech companies will too.
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