Does Social Media Harm Young Peoples’ Mental Health?

On Tuesday, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the United States surgeon general, issued a rare public health advisory on the risks that social media may pose to young people’s mental health and well-being. The report explains:

A Surgeon General’s Advisory is a public statement that calls the American people’s attention to an urgent public health issue and provides recommendations for how it should be addressed. Advisories are reserved for significant public health challenges that require the nation’s immediate awareness and action.

What is your initial reaction to Dr. Murthy’s advisory? Do you think young people’s social media use is a “significant public health challenge” that requires “the nation’s immediate awareness and action”? Why or why not?

In “Surgeon General Warns That Social Media May Harm Children and Adolescents,” Matt Richtel, Catherine Pearson and Michael Levenson write about the advisory:

In a 19-page advisory, the United States surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, noted that the effects of social media on adolescent mental health were not fully understood, and that social media can be beneficial to some users. Nonetheless, he wrote, “There are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”

The report included practical recommendations to help families guide children’s social media use. It recommended that families keep mealtimes and in-person gatherings free of devices to help build social bonds and promote conversation. It suggested creating a “family media plan” to set expectations for social media use, including boundaries around content and keeping personal information private.

Dr. Murthy also called on tech companies to enforce minimum age limits and to create default settings for children with high safety and privacy standards. And he urged the government to create age-appropriate health and safety standards for technology platforms.

Adolescents “are not just smaller adults,” Dr. Murthy said in an interview on Monday. “They’re in a different phase of development, and they’re in a critical phase of brain development.”

In “Teenagers Resent Social Media. They Also Resent Efforts to Take It Away.,” Troy Closson, Olivia Bensimon, Wesley Parnell and Michael D. Regan asked young New Yorkers for their reactions to the warning:

In Manhattan, one high school freshman said he was trying to cut down on scrolling through TikTok, but questioned whether age restrictions on social media use could ever effectively stop tech-savvy teenagers.

Another senior from Queens said social media was essential for socializing but lamented its transformation from an enjoyable activity into an obligation.

And outside a Brooklyn high school, one sophomore said he disdained the addictive power of social media and how it “manipulates our reward centers.” Still, he did not believe that legal restrictions were appropriate.

The teenagers’ reactions came hours after the United States surgeon general’s warning on Tuesday that social media can be a “profound risk” to the mental health and well-being of young people.

The warning added fresh fuel to a pitched national conversation on the effects of social media use on children and teenagers — and how policymakers, tech companies and families should intervene to limit it. The Biden administration said Tuesday it would create a task force to study the consequences and offer recommendations.

One New York City teenager revealed a nuanced outlook regarding social media:

“I resent it a lot actually,” said Jack Brown, 15, a sophomore at Brooklyn Technical High School in Fort Greene. “I could rant all day about why I don’t like social media and why I think it’s one of the great cancers of our generation.”

Still, he added: “I just don’t think the government should have that type of regulation over our own social lives.”

Students, read one or both of the articles and then tell us:

  • Do you agree with Dr. Murthy’s assessment that social media may pose mental health risks to young people? Should families, tech companies and the government do more to regulate young people’s use of it? Do you think this is an issue that deserves more attention and research? Why or why not?

  • What is your relationship with social media? What positive or negative experiences have you had on social media? Overall, how do you feel about social media’s presence in your life?

  • What rules or guidelines does your family have around technology? How do you feel about them? Would any of the surgeon general’s suggestions, such as keeping mealtimes device-free and creating a “family media plan,” work in your family?

  • To what extent do you think the government should get involved in regulating young people’s social media use? The governor of Montana recently signed a bill banning TikTok from operating in the state. In March, Utah became the first state to prohibit social media services from allowing users under 18 to have accounts without the explicit consent of a parent or guardian. Do you think laws like these go too far, or not far enough? Why?

  • To what extent do you think social media companies have a responsibility to make their platforms safe for young people? Some have introduced age limits or have made young people’s accounts private automatically. Is that enough? Should they be doing more? If so, what?

  • While Dr. Murthy’s advisory does not carry the force of law or policy, some past surgeons general reports have become turning points in American life. For example, an advisory issued in 1964 about the harmful effects of cigarettes set off a decades-long effort that changed the perception of smoking in America, from a that of glamorous habit to one with deadly consequences. Do you think Dr. Murthy’s warning about social media could have a similar effect? Why or why not? What, in your opinion, would be the best possible outcome of this report?

Students 13 and older in the United States and Britain, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public and may appear in print.

Find more Student Opinion questions here. Teachers, check out this guide to learn how you can incorporate these prompts into your classroom.

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