US surgeon general sounds alarm about social media’s impact on youth mental health

“I think this is an issue that needs to concern all of us,” Surgeon General Vivek Murthy told theGrio.

The U.S. surgeon general is sounding the alarm about the negative impacts of social media on the mental health of young Americans. 

“I think this is an issue that needs to concern all of us,” Dr. Vivek Murthy told theGrio.

Murthy, a father of two, has made the national topic of youth mental health a priority. Most recently, he issued an advisory on the dangers of social media and how stakeholders, from policymakers and parents to technology companies and researchers, can make social media safer for children and their mental health.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy speaks during the United States Conference of Mayors’ 91st Winter Meeting on Jan. 18, 2023 in Washington, D.C. Murthy recently issued an advisory on the dangers that social media poses to young people. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

“There is not enough evidence to say that social media is sufficiently safe for our kids, but we also find growing evidence that social media use is associated with harms,” said Murthy, who served as surgeon general during the Obama and Trump White Houses before returning to the Biden-Harris administration.

Data shows that social media use is nearly universal among U.S. children. Murthy points out that 95% of teens are on social media, including two-thirds who use it daily and a third who are “constantly” on social media platforms.

“This has pervaded our kids’ lives without very much information as to how it’s affecting them. But the more we learn, the more concerned I am,” said the surgeon general. 

In his advisory marking the end of Mental Health Awareness Month, Murthy urged policymakers to strengthen safety standards and limit access to social media, including protecting children’s privacy, promoting digital and media literacy and funding additional research. 

He also called on tech companies to do their part by assessing the impact of their products on children and sharing important data with researchers.

But while pushing lawmakers and private businesses to act on the growing concerns about the impact of social media on youth mental could take time, Murthy noted that there are actions that parents and families can take now to begin to turn the tide.

One recommendation is for parents to create tech-free zones in their homes to “better foster in-person relationships.”

“That could start simply with designating a time like dinnertime … when the family comes together and does not have phones and no one’s using social media but you’re focused on one another,” explained Murthy, who noted that protecting children’s sleep, in-person interaction and physical activity are three key areas in particular that are critical.

“Wherever we can ensure that kids are not using social media [or] their devices during those interactions … we will be more likely to ensure that our kids grow up and develop in a way that’s healthy,” he said.

In addition to Murthy’s advisory, the White House recently announced a series of new actions to curb America’s rising mental health crisis, including investments like more than $95 million in awards across 35 states to increase access to school-based mental health services. The federal government also issued more than $200 million for states, territories and tribal organizations to support the 988 suicide and crisis lifeline.

Dr. Ronald Love, a child psychologist in Maryland, commended the Biden-Harris administration’s focus on youth mental health, particularly the role of social media.

Love told theGrio that while attachment to social media also impacts adults, it’s especially dangerous for youth under 18 who “never knew what life was without social media.”

“They’re really engulfed into this social media world, whereas adults have that experience of life before social media, so we had the opportunity to learn social skills,” he said. “A lot of kids now rely on social media to develop those social skills and it’s impacting how they operate outside of that.”

3D rendering of popular social media icons
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has advised policymakers to strengthen safety standards and limit access to social media, including protecting children’s privacy, promoting digital and media literacy and funding additional research. (Adobe Stock)

Some of Love’s adolescent clients, for example, prefer to use platforms like YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and VR gaming to “develop these relationships with other people.” When he tries to encourage young clients to “get outside or maybe hang out with some of their friends,” Love said the thought “brings them anxiety.”

Love noted that the Anxiety and Depression Association of America has identified a new disorder: Social Media Anxiety Disorder. It is not officially classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), but he said symptoms include stopping mid-conversation to check one’s social media, neglecting interest in school or other activities, spending more than six hours a day on social media and even lying about the amount of time spent on social media. 

Murthy stated that there is an additional concern for young people who are members of marginalized communities, including Black and LGBTQ+ children.

“Some young people who are part of communities that have been historically marginalized, including LGBTQ youth, and communities of color, sometimes you can find a sense of community online, you can find support online,” he said. “But what we also know is that some of these youth are actually even more prone to some of the adverse effects of social media. For example, LGBTQ youth are more likely to experience cyberbullying online than other youth.”

Love said social media gives young people of color and LGBTQ+ youth a space to express themselves and gives them an opportunity to “find out more information about yourself, about your history.”

However, social media can also breed dangerous environments that can result in bullying and other harmful behavior. He recommended that parents make their children’s social platforms private and closely monitor them.

As researchers continue to collect more data about the role social media plays in the mental health of American youth, Murthy said it’s important that parents and other adults in children’s lives help to destigmatize mental health — and that includes being a model for young people.

“Mental health is not something that everyone feels comfortable talking about. We’re still dealing with this terrible historical stigma around mental health,” Murthy told theGio. “But it’s more important than ever because we are living in one of the most serious youth mental health crises that we’ve experienced in recent memory.

“You’ll find that once you share your own experiences and your story, you encourage other people to do the same,” the surgeon general added. “You’ll find that a lot of other people have experiences with mental health that we just don’t know about because you can’t see it on the outside.”

Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is a White House Correspondent and the Managing Editor of Politics at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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