US top health official sounds alarm on social media use by kids and adolescents

WASHINGTON – Social media can profoundly harm the mental health of young people, particularly adolescent girls, the United States Surgeon-General warned in an advisory on Tuesday, as he called for safeguards against tech companies for children who are at critical stages of brain development.

US Surgeon-General Vivek Murthy said that while social media offers some benefits, there are “ample indicators that social media could also harm children’s well-being”.

“We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis, and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis – one that we must urgently address,” Dr Murthy said.

Social media use may cause and perpetuate body image issues, affect eating behaviours and sleep quality, and lead to social comparison and low self-esteem, especially among adolescent girls, the advisory said, citing responses from a survey conducted among adolescents.

Adolescents who spend more than three hours per day on social media face double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes, such as symptoms of depression and anxiety, according to the advisory.

Most adolescents say social media helps them feel more accepted, more supported during tough times, more connected to their friends, and more creative, the advisory noted.

It said policymakers should strengthen safety standards in ways that enhance those benefits for kids of all ages, while noting that inappropriate and harmful content continues to be easily and widely accessible to children.

Tech companies should adhere to age limits to control access to social media platforms, and be transparent about data regarding the impact of their products on children, the advisory urged.

Algorithms and platform design should seek to maximise the potential benefits of social media instead of features designed to make users spend more time on them, it added.

“The first principle of healthcare is to do no harm – that’s the same standard we need to start holding social media platforms to,” said chief executive of the American Psychiatric Association Saul Levin.

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