What’s to know about the new Surgeon General report on social media and youth mental health?

Families/Kids Mental Health

A: The report indicates strong signals of social media’s harm to youth mental health, although it is still hard to know for sure if social media directly causes mental health problems.

Last month, the Surgeon General released an in-depth report about the potential harms of social media to youth mental health. Amidst a crisis of rising mental health problems, including increased suicide rates, among the nation’s teens and young adults, many people are looking for answers, and social media seems like an obvious culprit. One of the most oft-cited conclusions of the report paints a particularly concerning picture: adolescents who spend more than 3 hours per day on social media face a doubled risk of developing symptoms of depression and anxiety. On average, most youth spend between 6 and 8 hours a day on social media, so this finding is certainly concerning.

Dr. Murthy’s concern and call to action do not represent a new phenomenon. Concern about the impacts of social media particularly on teens and young adults has been simmering for years. For example, some research has suggested a strong link between body image dissatisfaction and eating disorder behaviors and social media use. A study earlier this year showed marked improvement in body image among teens who cut their use of social media by 50% for a few weeks compared to teens who continued using social media more frequently.
Most studies of the relationship between social media use and mental health concerns are correlational, so it is difficult to know whether social media causes negative impacts on mental health. However, the Surgeon General’s warning suggests that we have a strong enough signal here to at least suggest some guardrails around the extremely high rates of usage of this technology among teens and young adults.

Complicating things is the fact that social media can be beneficial to teens and young adults in certain circumstances. Most notably, social media can provide an important outlet for socially vulnerable teens and young adults, especially LGBTQ+ youth, some of whom may not live in supportive households or communities. Social media can allow such youth to find accepting environments that can be extremely beneficial to mental health.

What does the Surgeon General’s report actually accomplish? To be clear, there is no enforceable government action that accompanies Dr. Murthy’s report, including his recommendations that social media more tightly enforce age limits on certain types of content. However, by drawing attention to the issue and declaring it an “urgent public health issue,” Dr. Murthy’s influence might encourage more research and perhaps even local policy action to better understand and contain the potential threat of social media to youth mental health.

This is an emerging area, so keep your eyes peeled for new research in the coming weeks and months. Those Nerdy Girls will also continue to cover this issue as new information emerges. In the meantime, stay safe and stay well!

Those Nerdy Girls

Further reading

The Surgeon General’s report

Study on social media and body image

New York Times summary of the Surgeon General’s report

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