Surgeon General Urges Action to Safeguard Kids from Social Media

Surgeon General Urges Action to Safeguard Kids from Social Media
07.04.2024

Everyone is lonely. And it’s hurting their mental health, the U.S. surgeon general says.

Since he was confirmed as the 21st U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy has made mental health a priority, issuing advisories on topics such as youth mental health crisis and social isolation and loneliness.

In May, he also issued an advisory about social media’s effect on youth well-being, calling for urgent action in the face of declining youth mental health.

Typically, the U.S. surgeon general advisories are reserved for the country’s biggest health problems and, in some cases, have created a turning point in the approach to addressing public health concerns. Think the 1964 report on cigarettes, or the 1989 report on drunken driving.

Mental health was a concern even before the pandemic, when the surgeon general’s office found a 57% increase in suicide rate among young people between 2007 and 2018.

At that time, nearly one in three high school girls had seriously considered taking their own life. In addition, nearly half of high school students were feeling persistently hopeless and sad.

And since COVID-19, that situation has become even more dire.

“My worry is that as a country we will become numb to the statistics, that we will all think this is just the baseline or this is just how the world works these days. There’s nothing normal about any of these statistics, and I wanted our country to know that,” Murthy said in an interview with the Des Moines Register.

Murthy visited Des Moines this week as part of his cross-country tour to discuss the prevalence of mental health issues among America’s youth. He spoke at the Harkin Institute Wednesday about social media and its harmful impacts on adolescents and teens.

During his trip to Des Moines, Murthy stopped by the Des Moines Register offices to speak with reporters about his office’s efforts. Here’s what he had to say:

Adults and kids alike struggle with loneliness, and it has serious effects on their health

The 82-page advisory titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation” found approximately half of U.S. adults report experiencing loneliness, with some of the highest rates among young adults. Murthy said youth rates of loneliness is double the rate seen among older Americans.

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Those grappling with social isolation face increased risk for anxiety, depression and suicide. In addition, the advisory found it also has consequences for physical health, leading to higher risk for conditions like heart disease or dementia.

“In the same way that we think about smoking or obesity as classic public health issues, my belief is that we should think about loneliness and isolation as public health issues that are just as important,” he said. “We found that the mortality impact associated with social disconnection was on par with smoking daily, and it was greater than the mortality that we saw with obesity.”

Social media is a major driver of poor mental health among youth.

According to the surgeon general’s advisory on the tie between social media use and mental health among youth, up to 95% of youth ages 13–17 and nearly 40% of children ages 8–12 report using a social media platform.

Though the advisory notes the full extent of the impact is not yet known, a growing body of evidence shows that social media can “have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”

The advisory pointed to one study that found a correlation between spending more than three hours a day on social media to an increased risk for “poor mental health outcomes, including symptoms of depression and anxiety” among adolescents.

Now, the average time on a social media platform is nearly five hours, Murthy said.

“It’s really concerning, given that volume of use,” he said.

Murthy said he worries the country won’t be able to address the broader youth mental health crisis if officials only focus on specific aspects, like expanding access to care or reducing stigma.

While those are important steps, he argued there also needs to be a systematic approach to address the root causes of poor mental health among youth, and that includes reducing the harms caused by social media.

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“If we do that, and I think we have a very good chance of helping our kids reducing rates of depression, anxiety and suicide, and allowing kids to truly do what we all want them to do, which is to be healthy and to thrive,” he said.

Federal officials need to create uniform safeguards for social media

As part of his advisories, Murthy has called for greater regulation on technology companies and requirements for them to put safeguards in place to protect young users.

That includes safety standards to protect kids’ exposure to harmful content, such as extreme violence or sexual content, and protection against manipulative features that seek to lure users into excessive use of their platforms. Murthy has also called for companies to disclose their data on the health impacts of their platform.

Murthy said he believes there needs to be a uniform federal standard established by elected officials across the country, to ensure companies abide by these safety standards across the board.

“I do think if we want the platforms to ultimately be safer for our kids, that this is a place where government needs to step in, because we’ve run the experiment of letting the platforms do it by themselves. That 20-year experiment has failed, and it’s demonstrated to us that it’s come at the cost of the mental health and well-being of our children,” Murthy said.

Murthy acknowledged challenges in moving forward legislation in the current Congress. However, he said he has been optimistic about the growing interest on both sides of the aisle to address this issue and the increasing advocacy from families and health care providers to craft policies around this goal.

“I think those forces did not exist at the same degree three, four or five years ago,” he said. “So I do find that encouraging.”

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Schools and parents can take steps to help protect kids

Though legislation is key, Murthy said school officials can help address this issue within their building by introducing more digital literacy training that teaches children about harms of social media into their curriculum. He also said schools should implement phone-free zones, and help foster more in-person interactions among peers during the school day.

Parents can also deploy similar strategies by requiring their kids to keep phones and tablets put away during dinner time, or before bed.

“I do think that for parents setting an example for kids is really essential here, because kids really do watch what parents do,” Murthy said. “Interestingly, hear a lot from kids that they’re frustrated that their parents are on their phones all the time, including at the dinner table and elsewhere. So this is a challenge for all of us.”

Doctors, public health officials need to create more trust with patients

In 2021, in the midst of coronavirus pandemic, Murthy called COVID-19 misinformation “an urgent threat,” stating in an advisory that it sows mistrust in health entities, causes harm and undermines public health efforts.

That information has continued to have impact on the nation’s vaccination rates, resulting in rates that dip below critical levels in many communities and heightening the risk for outbreaks of infectious diseases.

However, though trust in government entities has waned, federal officials have found many Americans still trust their local connections, such as their doctor. Because of this, relationship building between local health officials and individuals has become “even more vital,” Murthy said.

“That means we have to approach those jobs a bit differently,” he said. “It’s not just about putting information out, it’s about building a relationship with the community because trust is mediated through relationships. When you get to know someone and they know that you know them, you build trust.”

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