U.S. surgeon general issues advisory on social media and youth mental health

By Bode Oyowele

On May 23, 2023, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released a new advisory on the impact of social media use on youth mental health. “The most common question parents ask me is, ‘is social media safe for my kids?’ The answer is that we don’t have enough evidence to say it’s safe, and in fact, there is growing evidence that social media use is associated with harm to young people’s mental health,” Murthy said. The 19-page advisory identifies youth mental health as an urgent public health issue and offers recommendations for addressing it. The advisory places further attention on recently filed lawsuits against social media companies by school districts based on the detrimental effects of social media use among youth, as reported in an article in CSBA’s upcoming June edition of California School News.

The surgeon general’s advisory was based on a review of research articles and resources suggested by subject matter experts. The advisory focuses on social media use among children and adolescents, specifies the potential benefits of social media use, outlines harms that could result from exposure to harmful content or from excessive and problematic use, and offers recommendations for addressing the developing mental health crisis.

The benefits listed by the surgeon general include access to important information and the creation of space for self-expression, as well as opportunities for positive interactions with more diverse peer groups that can provide important social support. The advisory also acknowledges benefits that derive from the formation of a positive community and connection with others based on shared identities, abilities and interests.

The advisory also identifies several areas of concern, among which are the potential harms that children and adolescents could suffer from use of social media. It states that serious health consequences, including death, can result when children and adolescents are exposed to extreme, inappropriate and harmful content. The advisory references some tragic cases in which childhood deaths have been linked to suicide and self-harm-related content and risk-taking challenges on certain social media platforms. The advisory maintains that live depictions and discussions of self-harm acts such as partial asphyxiation, which can lead to seizures, and cutting, which can lead to significant bleeding, have the effect of normalizing such behaviors and resulting in the formation of suicide pacts and posting of self-harm models for others to follow.

Additionally, children and adolescents can be harmed by excessive and problematic use of social media. The advisory explains that compulsive and uncontrollable use has been linked to sleep problems, attention problems, feelings of exclusion among children and adolescents, and other mental health problems. Furthermore, social media platforms, which by design maximize user engagement, encourage excessive use among children and adolescents and disrupt important healthy behaviors.

To safeguard the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents, the surgeon general recommends a proactive and multifaceted approach that would involve actions by stakeholders such as policymakers, including school district and county office of education boards, technology companies, researchers, families and young people. The surgeon general recommends that policymakers make efforts to strengthen protections for children interacting with social media platforms and to force technology companies to share data relevant to the health impact of their platforms.

As part of recommendations for technology companies, the surgeon general recommends that they conduct and facilitate transparent and independent assessments of the impact of their social media products and services on children and adolescents, and that they prioritize user health and safety in the design and development of social media products and services.

Bode Oyowele is a CSBA associate general counsel.