Does social media harm young people’s mental health?

On Tuesday, Dr. Vivek Murthy, Surgeon General of the United States, has issued a rare public health warning about the risks that social media can pose to young people’s mental health and well-being. The report explains:

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

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

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

In a 19-page statement, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy noted that the effects of social media on adolescent mental health are not fully understood and that social media may be beneficial for some users. However, he wrote: “There are ample indicators that social media may also have a profound risk of harming the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”

The report included practical recommendations to help families guide their children’s use of social media. It recommended that families keep meals and personal gatherings device-free to help build social bonds and promote conversation. It suggested creating a “family media plan” to define expectations for social media usage, including limits around content and keeping personal information private.

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

Teenagers “are not just smaller adults,” Murthy said in an interview on Monday. “They are at a different stage of development and at a critical stage of brain development.”

In “Teens resent social media. They also resent efforts to remove it.” Troy Closson, Olivia Bensimon, Wesley Parnell and Michael D. Regan asked young New Yorkers their reactions to the warning:

In Manhattan, a high school freshman said he was trying to cut back on TikTok browsing, but questioned whether age restrictions on social media use could effectively deter tech-savvy teens.

Another Queens veteran said social media is essential for socializing, but lamented its transformation from an enjoyable activity to a chore.

And outside of a Brooklyn high school, a sophomore said he was dismissive of the addictive power of social media and how it “manipulates our reward centers.” Still, he didn’t believe the legal restrictions were appropriate.

The teens’ reactions came hours after the US Surgeon General’s warning on Tuesday that social media could be a “profound risk” to young people’s mental health and well-being.

The alert added new fuel to a national conversation about the effects of social media use on children and teens — and how policymakers, tech companies and families should intervene to limit it. The Biden administration said on Tuesday it would create a task force to study the fallout and offer recommendations.

One teenager from New York City revealed a different view of social media:

“I resent that 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 kind 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 that social media can pose risks to young people’s mental health? Should families, tech companies and government do more to regulate youth use of it? Do you think this is a subject 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 the presence of social media in your life?

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

  • To what extent do you think the government should be involved in regulating young people’s use of social media? Montana’s governor recently signed a bill banning TikTok from operating in the state. In March, Utah became the first state to ban social media services from allowing users under 18 to have accounts without explicit parental or guardian consent. 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 made young people’s accounts automatically private. That’s enough? Should they be doing more? If so, what?

  • Although the advice of Dr. Murthy has no force of law or policy, some general reports by past surgeons became turning points in American life. For example, a warning issued in 1964 about the harmful effects of cigarettes sparked a decades-long effort that changed America’s perception of smoking from a glamorous habit to one with deadly consequences. Do you think Dr. Murthy on social media could have a similar effect? Why or why not? What, in your opinion, would be the best possible result of this report?

Students aged 13 and over in the United States and Great Britain, and ages 16 and over elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network team, but please remember that once your comment is accepted it will become public and may appear in print.

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

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