U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on Tuesday warning that social media use among minors can severely damage mental health.
The advisory, which noted that social media use is “nearly universal” for young people, noted that there has never been a robust safety analysis for the technology among minors, a reality which comes as mental health declines considerably among the demographic. Murthy prompted lawmakers, technology companies, and families to take action.
“The most common question parents ask me is, ‘is social media safe for my kids.’ The answer is that we don’t have enough evidence to say it’s safe, and in fact, there is growing evidence that social media use is associated with harm to young people’s mental health,” Murthy said in a statement. “Children are exposed to harmful content on social media, ranging from violent and sexual content, to bullying and harassment. And for too many children, social media use is compromising their sleep and valuable in-person time with family and friends.”
Some 95% of minors between 13 years old and 17 years old report using social media, while 40% of children between 8 years old and 12 years old said the same despite the minimum age requirements for the platforms. The advisory added that frequent use of the technology is associated with changes in the development of the amygdala, the region of the brain responsible for emotional learning and behavior, as well as the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for impulse control and the moderation of social behavior.
Murthy said in an interview earlier this year that children younger than 13 years old should not be able to join social media platforms. “You have some of the best designers and product developers in the world who have designed these products to make sure people are maximizing the amount of time they spend on these platforms,” he commented. “And if we tell a child, ‘Use the force of your willpower to control how much time you’re spending,’ you’re pitting a child against the world’s greatest product designers.”
Members of Congress have indeed noted the addictive properties of social media services and their deleterious effects on mental health. One lawmaker described TikTok, presently the most popular social media network for young people, as “digital fentanyl,” a reference to the addictive characteristics of the limitless stream of vertical videos offered by the platform.
Children and teenagers spent an average of 99 minutes per day on TikTok as of two years ago, far exceeding the amount of time spent on other rivals, according to data from Qustodio.
TikTok, which currently faces additional regulatory pressure due to the company’s ownership by a Chinese technology firm, recently announced measures that will prompt young users to create a daily screen time limit if they spend more than 100 minutes on the platform each day. Parents and guardians will be permitted to more easily view screen time on a dashboard and customize limits for their children based on school schedules, holidays, and other commitments.
American officials have also noted that Chinese authorities seem to understand the effects of TikTok: children under 14 years old who use Douyin, the version of TikTok available in China, are only permitted 40 minutes of screen time each day and cannot access the platform at night.