Surgeon general issues advisory warning

Social media’s harmful nature proves mental health risk for teens

On May 23, 2023, United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an advisory cautioning the public of the adverse effect of social media use on teenage mental health, stressing a “profound risk of harm” for adolescents.

Similar reports released by Surgeon Generals in the past have addressed issues such as cigarette use, the AIDS crisis, and drunk driving; each report has managed to make a significant impact on public opinion and influence policy decisions. For example, As a result of Dr. Luther L. Terry’s 1964 report on the dangers of cigarettes to human health, warning labels on cigarette packets were made mandatory. 

Dr. Murthy acknowledges the positive benefits of social media use, such as the opportunity for users to make connections outside of the social circles they are surrounded by in everyday life, along with exposure to different beliefs and opinions. Seeing people with similar interests and passions online, suggests Dr. Murthy, especially when one might struggle with the absence of like-minded peers offline, can help users feel a sense of community. However, Dr. Murthy writes, social media usage by teenagers comes with an abundance of detriments to developmental health. 

We, the editorial staff, agree with Dr. Murthy’s cautionary approach to the future of social media. While social media can provide advantages by serving as a communicative platform and offering potential connections, its risks far outweigh its benefits. It has been proven that adolescents who spend more than three hours on social media or their phone face double the risk of depression or other mental health risks. A plethora of studies have found that cyberbullying and depression have a direct relationship, along with a dependance on a ‘like button’ to determine self worth. At ages below 15, adolescents’ brains are not fully developed and are more susceptible to the risks of high amounts of social media usage. Dr. Murthy claims that “in early adolescence…[when] identities and sense of self-worth are forming, brain development is especially susceptible to social pressures, peer opinions, and peer comparison.” Frequent technology usage has been linked to alterations in the amygdala (emotional learning and behavior) and the prefrontal cortex (impulse control, emotional regulation, modeling social behavior), and may lead to eventual heightened sensitivity to everyday life. In an experiment across United States college campuses led by the University of Michigan, researchers discovered an increase in depression (9% over baseline) and anxiety (12% over baseline) among college-aged youth subsequent to the introduction of a social media platform on campuses. Health outcomes like cyberbullying-related depression, body image and disordered eating behaviors, and poor sleep quality linked to social media or technology use raise high concern of harm in young girls and those already experiencing poor mental health. According to Pew Research Center, parents of adolescents recognize these dangers, and say they are somewhat, very, or extremely worried that their child’s use of social media could lead to problems with anxiety or depression (53%), struggles with self-esteem (54%), being harassed or bullied (54%), feeling pressured to act a certain way (59%), and exposure to explicit content (71%).

It has been discovered that limits as low as 30 minutes daily for over three weeks led to significant decreases in depression levels of college students. Professors Amy Orben and Andrew K. Przbylski (et al) state that for those with a high baseline level of depression, there were improvements as high as 35%. Happiness levels, life satisfaction, and the ability to self-help or get involved with group or individual therapy increased by 25-40%. According to the Surgeon General’s release, “In addition to these recent studies, correlational research on associations between social media use and mental health has indicated reason for concern and further investigation.”

Dr. Murthy provides suggestions for mitigating the harmful effects of social media for all involved groups: technology companies, policy makers, parents, and the teenagers themselves. He encourages technology companies to implement stricter minimum age requirements, and follow through on their ability to pursue identifying tactics, as they have been avoiding through checks due to profit maximization. On top of identification, companies must improve safety and security standards across all platforms, and ensure the content accessible is age appropriate. For families, he suggests the use of a “family media plan,” in which boundaries for technology use are set and agreed upon within the household. We agree that parents must be aware of the information and tools available to alleviate the burden and stress of limiting usage by teenagers themselves. In the end, however, it is up to the users themselves to regulate usage and research the beneficial and detrimental effects of social media themselves. Unlike cigarette usage and drunk driving, social media is difficult to regulate through legislation; minimum age requirements can be bypassed, and advice can be ignored. Users must understand the risks themselves in order to have the motivation to limit their own usage.

In our opinion, social media presents a significant danger to those under the age of 16, and should be swiftly regulated. Limiting social media or technology use allows teenagers to look elsewhere for entertainment, such as the world and the people around them. Maintaining real life connections is far more important than depending on comments to feel good or happy about yourself. We recognize this is a prominent issue, and it will take time to claw ourselves out of the hole that is social media, but for our own health and safety, we must.