According to a 19-page advisory by the United States surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, up to 95% of youth ages 13–17 report using a social media platform–over a third of those claiming that they use social media "almost constantly." The point of Dr. Vivek Murthy was to call out the potential harm that social media has on the younger generations as more and more kids spend time on apps like TikTok and Instagram.
In his reports, Dr. Vivek Murthy noted that the effects of social media on adolescent mental health were not fully understood and that social media can be beneficial to some users– however, he also wrote, "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." Below we'll dive more into Dr. Vivek Murthy's work and provide you with some helpful tips to keep your kids safe when using social media.
Can We Measure the Good and the Bad of Social Media?
In short, yes and no. Overall social media has an influence on our youth's mental health. The impact comes from complex factors including, but not limited to, the following:
- Time spent on social media
- Type of content consumed or exposed to
- Activities and interactions social media affords
- The degree of daily disruption (like sleep and physical activity)
Regarding its impact, it is important to remember that social media can affect different children and adolescents in different ways. Everyone has their own strengths and vulnerabilities based on certain things like cultural background and socio-economic factors. According to the report by Dr. Vivek Murthy, he claims that there is "broad agreement among the scientific community" surrounding how social media has the potential to both "benefit and harm children and adolescents."
What Are the Risks Of Social Media Use in Kids?
Over the last decade, as social media has risen to new heights, there has been more and more evidence to support the reasons for concern regarding the potential negative impact of social media on children and adolescents. Some of the negative impacts include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Poor mental health. According to a study, adolescents' mental health status, when they spent more than three hours per day on social media, faced double the risk of experiencing poor mental health issues, including, but not limited to, depression and anxiety.
- Exposure to content. In some instances, when children or adolescents have been exposed to extreme, inappropriate, and harmful content online, it has led to acts of self-harm and suicide.
- Body dysmorphia: Certain online content can lead children to develop skewed ideas about their body image. In a survey about the impact of social media on their body image, 46% of kids aged 13–17 said that social media made them feel worse. 40% claimed they felt neither better nor worse, and only 14% said social media made them feel better.
- Excessive and problematic social media use. Social media has the technology to maximize user engagement, keeping users on their apps for hours. The overuse of social media can harm children and adolescents, disrupt important healthy behaviors, and potentially cause behavioral dysregulation.
What Can Parents & Caregivers Do To Protect Their Kids?
According to research, nearly 70% of parents say parenting is now more difficult than it was 20 years ago, with the inclusion of technology and social media. While the burden of reducing the potential harms of social media should not entirely rest on the shoulders of parents and caregivers, there are steps they can take to help support and create a safe environment around social media use to reduce the risk of harm.
- Create a family media plan. Creating a plan can openly promote conversations about social media use. Take this time to talk about boundaries with screen time, content, and keeping your personal information private.
- Model responsible social media behavior. You can set an excellent example of what it means to be responsible on social media. Practice what you preach by setting your own boundaries and being mindful of social media habits.
- Report cyberbullying and online abuse, and exploitation. Talk to your kids about the importance of reporting online harassment, and also provide them with a safe and judgment-free space to talk about their experience. If your child shows you they are being harassed via email, text message, online games, or social media or have been inappropriately contacted by an adult seeking intimate or sexual acts, you and your child can report cyberbullying to the online platform or to your local law enforcement.
- Educate kids about technology and empower them to be responsible online. Having conversations with kids about who they are connecting with, their privacy settings and their experiences can empower and encourage them to seek help should they need it.
As mentioned, the responsibility should not entirely rest on the parents or caregivers. Kids can also play an active role in keeping themselves safe from harm online. While online, kids can help keep themselves safe by reaching out to a trusted friend or adult for help when they feel unsafe. They can create boundaries to help balance their online and offline activities. A great way to create a boundary can be by setting hours dedicated to people and activities not connected online.
Parents and guardians also believe that the responsibility should also fall on the technology companies who created social media platforms to step up and protect their kids from harm. Even some policymakers have stepped up to the bat to ensure their kid's safety online. In certain states like Montana where, on April 14, 2023, they became the first state to pass legislation banning the social media platform TikTok on all personal devices operating within state lines.
As Dr. Vivek Murthy said in an interview that the lack of clarity around social media was a heavy burden for users and families to bear, and more research is needed to fully understand the impact of social media. However, until more research can be done, keeping best practices to keep your kids safe online is one positive step forward for everyone involved. For more information on how you can help keep your kids safe from the potential harms of social media, or if your child has suffered mental health issues due to the use of social media, we may be able to help you.