In a wake-up call to parents, as well as Big Tech, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy says America’s teenagers have a growing mental health problem, and social media is probably a significant contributor.
In an advisory, Murthy points to data that show the vast majority – 95% – of children between the ages of 13 and 17 report actively using a social media app. When asked how often they use it, nearly one-third said: “almost constantly.”
In his advisory, Murthy said that’s a connection that must be explored.
“While technology platforms have improved our lives in important ways, increasing our ability to build new communities, deliver resources and access information, we know that, for many people, they can also have adverse effects,” he wrote. “When not deployed responsibly and safely, these tools can pit us against each other, reinforce negative behaviors like bullying and exclusion, and undermine the safe and supportive environments young people need and deserve.”
The pandemic made it worse
And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic. After the last three years, when routines were interrupted and digital contact was about all there was, Murthy said the problem has gotten worse.
“The pandemic era’s unfathomable number of deaths, pervasive sense of fear, economic instability, and forced physical distancing from loved ones, friends, and communities have exacerbated the unprecedented stresses young people already faced,” he wrote. “It would be a tragedy if we beat back one public health crisis only to allow another to grow in its place.”
It’s not just a problem in the U.S. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 3.6% of 10-14 year-olds and 4.6% of 15-19 year-olds experience an anxiety disorder. Depression is estimated to occur among 1.1% of adolescents aged 10-14 years, and 2.8% of 15-19-year-olds. Depression and anxiety share some of the same symptoms, including rapid and unexpected changes in mood.
Murthy calls for a “societal effort” to help promote good mental health among young people and assessing various social media platforms and how they are used is a good first step.
Critics of platforms like Instagram say they encourage users to compare their lives to those they see online, even though the post may be highly staged and not reflective of reality. Nonetheless, it can trigger a “happiness arms race” with posters trying to outshine one another.