US Surgeon General says social media can pose 'a profound risk' to teens' mental health

On the other hand, research has shown that teens find community and support on social media.

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US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has stated in an advisory that "we cannot conclude social media is sufficiently safe for children and adolescents." Murthy argued that the potential harms of social media outweigh the benefits for younger users.

Citing "a substantial review of the available evidence” on the impact of social media, the advisory says "there are ample indicators" it can "have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents." It states that, according to Pew Research, as much as 95 percent of US teens aged 13 to 17 use social media while 19 percent said they were on YouTube "almost constantly."

"Children and adolescents who spend more than 3 hours a day on social media face double the risk of mental health problems including experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety," the advisory reads. "This is concerning as a recent survey showed that teenagers spend an average of 3.5 hours a day on social media."

The advisory calls on tech companies to take "immediate action to mitigate unintended negative effects" of online interactions. It also asks lawmakers to "strengthen protections to ensure greater safety for children and adolescents interacting with all social media platforms."

However, some evidence suggests that social media can be a net benefit for teens. According to a recent Pew Research study, most say they're more connected to their friends through social media. The study indicated that a majority of 13 to 17-year-olds in the US felt that social media provided them with a space to express their creativity, find support and feel more accepted.

Murthy acknowledged that social media can provide benefits to younger users. However, he has been sounding the alarm bell about youth and teen use of such services for some time.

In January, he told CNN that 13 was "too early" for young people to be on social media (companies in that space typically don't allow under 13s to use their services without consent from a parent or guardian). “If parents can band together and say you know, as a group, we’re not going to allow our kids to use social media until 16 or 17 or 18 or whatever age they choose, that’s a much more effective strategy in making sure your kids don’t get exposed to harm early,” Murthy told the broadcaster.

There have certainly been well-documented instances of social media negatively impacting teens' mental health. Still, the advisory is being published at a time when there is a growing appetite among lawmakers for regulating teen use of social media.

A bill was introduced to the Senate last month that aims to block teens from using social media without parental consent (Utah and Arkansas have both passed statewide legislation on that front). A separate Senate bill called the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) aims to force social media companies to add more protections for younger users. The bill was reintroduced after it failed to reach the Senate floor last year.

Critics say such legislation can infringe on the right to privacy and freedom of speech, among other concerns. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, among others, has argued that social media parental consent laws deprive both young people and adults of their First Amendment rights. As for KOSA, American Civil Liberties Union senior policy counsel Cody Venzke said the bill's “core approach still threatens the privacy, security and free expression of both minors and adults by deputizing platforms of all stripes to police their users and censor their content under the guise of a ‘duty of care.’”