Halfpoint/Adobe Stock

Halfpoint/Adobe Stock

A sweeping new advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General outlines the best available evidence on how social media is affecting the mental health of youth in the United States.

Although the report acknowledges that young people can benefit from social media use, it also highlights evidence demonstrating that social media has “a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”

Here’s what we know:

  • Social media use is prevalent among young people. More than 90% of youth ages 13–17 report using social media and more than a third say they use it “almost constantly.” Among younger adolescents, nearly 40% of children ages 8–12 use social media, according to the evidence.
  • Many factors determine how social media influence youth. These include how much time children spend on platforms, the type of content they engage with, the interactions they have with other users, and how much their social media use disrupts other healthy activities.
  • Social media can provide positive community, connection, and social support for youth, especially those who are marginalized. Evidence demonstrates social media may support the mental health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, transgender, queer, and intersex youths by helping them connect with peers and develop their identities. More than half of adolescents report that social media helps them feel more accepted and provides a support system—and 80% say it helps them to feel more connected to their friends’ lives.
  • Data demonstrates that social media can harm mental health as well. A longitudinal study of nearly 7,000 youth ages 12-15 found that adolescents who spent more than three hours per day on social media doubled their risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes, including depression and anxiety. Smaller studies demonstrate that limiting social media use leads to significant improvement in depression symptoms, especially for those with more severe symptoms. One study of more than 14,000 14-year-olds found that increased social media use predicted poor sleep, online harassment, poor body image, low self-esteem, and increased risk of experiencing depression; girls were more likely to be negatively affected compared to boys.
  • Social media provides youth with access to harmful content. Systematic reviews demonstrate that social media can expose youth to self-harm and may help to normalize those behaviors. Another meta-analysis found a significant relationship between social media use, body image concerns, and eating disorders. Nearly half of adolescents ages 13-17 report that social media makes them feel worse about their own body image. Another review found a significant relationship between cyberbullying and depression among youth; girls and sexual minority youth were most affected.
  • Excessive use of social media may prevent youth from engaging in other healthy behaviors. There is evidence that social media can become compulsive; small studies show people who use it excessively have changes in their brain structures similar to those with substance abuse disorders and gambling addictions. A large systematic review found that excessive social media is related to poor sleep quality, reduced sleep duration, and depression among youth. The evidence is clear that poor sleep among adolescents is linked to altered neurological development, depressive symptoms, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

The available evidence leaves a myriad of unanswered questions about youth and social media. Even still, the report offers these recommendations for parents to help buffer the negative consequences of social media use among kids:

  • Create a family media plan that promotes open discussion and sets up rules for social media use. These may include balancing time spent online with other activities, creating boundaries about acceptable content, and teaching youth not to disclose personal information online.
  • Establish technology-free time such as evenings before bedtime, family meal times, and playdates with friends to encourage in-person interactions.
  • Model responsible behavior when using social media platforms.
  • Teach children the benefits of social media and encourage them to make healthy connections online.
  • Discuss the ways your child could report cyberbullying, online abuse, and exploitation. If your child encounters any of these situations, provide support without judgment.

It’s important to remember that social media has drawbacks and positive aspects, said Amanda Purington, the director of evaluation and research for ACT for Youth, an organization at the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research that supports healthy youth development. “Though the news stories about this Advisory often focus on the risks of social media, parents and other adults working with youth should read beyond the headlines about the Surgeon General’s Advisory. There are both possible risks and benefits to adolescent social media use,” she said, “and there are actionable steps you can take to help the young people you care about learn about potential pitfalls and help prepare them to use social media in ways that are safe, positive, prosocial, and fun.”

Purington is also a researcher with the Cornell Social Media Lab, where she helped to develop and evaluate an online educational program for middle school students called Social Media TestDrive. The program is designed to teach people good digital citizenship through practice scenarios.

The take-home message: There is clear evidence that social media use can become harmful for young people. It’s important to take steps to help prevent social media use from harming your child’s mental health.


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