The US Surgeon General Blames Social Media for the Youth Mental Health Crisis

The country's top doctor has issued an advisory calling the risks of social media to youth "profound." But what steps can parents take to minimize the impact on their kids' mental health?

Tween sisters using digital tablets on living room floor

MoMo Productions/Getty Images

United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D., MBA has issued a sobering public warning about the risks social media poses to youth. "There are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents," Dr. Murthy writes in the 19-page advisory.

The country's top health official is also noting that the full extent of the risks of social media on children and adolescents is still unclear. He's calling for a push to understand those risks even better. In one concerning and profound statement, the advisory says, "Our children have become unknowing participants in a decades-long experiment."

Protecting Youth Mental Health, The U.S. Surgeon General's Advisory

Our children have become unknowing participants in a decades-long experiment.

— Protecting Youth Mental Health, The U.S. Surgeon General's Advisory

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) echoes these sentiments in response to the Surgeon General's report. "Today's children and teens do not know a world without digital technology, but the digital world wasn't built with children's healthy mental development in mind," says AAP President Sandy Chung, M.D., FAAP. "We need an approach to help children both on and offline that meets each child where they are while also working to make the digital spaces they inhabit safer and healthier."

According to a summary of the research, 95% of teens and 40% of children ages 8-12 are on social media.

"Despite this widespread use among children and adolescents, we do not yet have enough evidence to determine if social media use is sufficiently safe for them—especially during adolescence, a particularly vulnerable period of brain development," the advisory notes.

The Effects of Social Media Use

Dr. Murthy's report lists risks associated with tweens and teens using social media, which include poor sleep, depression, and addiction to the platforms. The advisory says more than a third of users ages 13-17 reported they were accessing social media "almost constantly."

As a child psychologist, Scott Roth, Psy.D. has seen these effects. "Similar to narcotics, scrolling through social media can give almost an instantaneous dopamine burst that becomes reinforcing for the teen," says Dr. Roth. "This can take away from important activities of daily life for teens such as learning, socializing, exercising, and even eating."

Dr. Murthy's advisory cited specific research on young girls. About a third of girls ages 11-15 said they felt "addicted to social media." The advisory also points to research showing social media might factor into body dissatisfaction and disordered eating habits—something else that didn't surprise Dr. Roth. Ditto for the Surgeon General's mention of cyberbullying, a concern Dr. Roth also shares.

"Individuals have the tendency to say more hurtful and hateful things online than they would say in person," Dr. Roth says. "A quick perusal of the comments section of your local newspaper online can capture this in real-time, and most of the commenters are adults. Cyberbullying, harassment, and threats online give some adolescents the feeling that there is no safe place to exist."

While Dr. Murthy's advisory says social media could have some benefits for young people, it doesn't negate the need to delve further into strategies for harm reduction.

"It's never an all-or-nothing proposition," Dr. Roth adds. "In order to maximize the benefits and limit the risks, parents must be able to set boundaries around social media use based on their child's developmental needs."

What Can Be Done to Minimize Risks of Social Media to Youth?

The Surgeon General's report includes specific strategies for policymakers, tech companies, parents, children, and adolescents.

Suggestions for parents and caregivers

  • Create family plans like tech-free zones
  • Educate youth on responsible behavior online
  • Role model responsible behavior
  • Report content and activity they find troubling

Suggestions for tweens and teens

  • Limit time on social media
  • Block content
  • Use caution when sharing personal information online
  • Ask for help if they feel they or a friend need it
  • Ask for help if they see abusive content or online harassment

"The Surgeon General's recommendations are spot on, and we are grateful for the way he is raising awareness about the risks of social media use among teens," says Jim Steyer, the CEO, and founder of Common Sense Media. "Our research in this area supports Dr. Murthy's assertion that social media contributes to a growing mental health crisis among teens."

Steyer says tech-free zones might include bedrooms and sleeping areas to help kids get adequate rest. "We often recommend that parents turn off devices in the evening and keep them away from nightstands so that kids aren't tempted to look at them as soon as they wake up," Steyer adds.

Sometimes adults are the biggest offenders online. But Dr. Murthy is calling for adults to role model responsible behavior. What does that look like?

"One way for parents to model positive behavior is through their own actions, both in terms of what they post on social media and their phone usage in front of their children," says Dr. Regine Muradian, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in California. "If you establish a rule of no phones at the dinner table, it is essential for parents to adhere to the same rule. Children learn and take cues from our behaviors, so setting a good example is crucial."

Are The Surgeon General's Suggestions Enough?

Experts say the report is a start, not a finish line.

"While the recommendations are extremely useful and actionable, solving this complex a problem requires collaboration and cooperation across schools, tech companies, parents, and policymakers," says Steyer.

Dr. Muradian says in-school programming would be useful.

"I propose implementing monthly, consistent seminars focusing on the dos and don'ts of social media platforms," she says. "These seminars can involve professionals who are brought into schools nationwide, actively engaging with our teens, and they possess firsthand knowledge of how social media impacts them. By implementing these programs, we can drive change that is crucial for both the current and future generations."

Dr. Muradian also recommends parents implement phone contracts and speak with their teens about responsible posting before giving them phone or platform access. And Steyer suggests offline conversations are crucial.

"We also recommend that parents have regular conversations with their children about mental health," Steyer says. "Those that create a safe space for conversations about their lives on—and offline—can build trust and give teens an outlet to talk about how they feel."

But the responsibility does not just fall on caregivers, youth, and schools. The report specifically calls for action from policymakers, tech companies, and researchers. Steyer says the only way to solve the issues is through an all-in approach.

States have already started enacting their own laws surrounding social media. Montana became the first state in the nation to totally ban TikTok. Other states are setting age limits and giving parents more control.

"It's equally important for social media companies to design products around kids' safety and preferences," Steyer says. "Teens have told us they want age limits, more privacy options, and more positive content. It's time social media companies listen to their users."

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles