Published in June 2023 by The Tulsa World. View here.
By Tim Stanley
Conveyed with a sense of urgency, a new national advisory on the harmful impact of social media on youth mental health hopefully can inspire a more united effort for solutions, officials say.
Noting the growth in evidence that social media use is fueling the nation’s youth mental health crisis, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on May 23 in which he called for “immediate action” and outlined roles that lawmakers, tech companies, researchers and parents each can play.
Among organizations that see the issue firsthand, officials with Tulsa’s Family & Children’s Services, which provides outpatient mental health care, welcomed Murthy’s call to action.
The agency is on pace this year to serve 6,000 youth and families, a 30% increase over last year.
“I don’t want to point the finger at social media and say it’s just that. It’s one piece of it,” said Dee Harris, F&CS chief strategic engagement officer.
“But social media — the algorithms, the addictiveness — is definitely part of why our youth are suffering.”
Cheryl Delk, manager of Mental Health Association Oklahoma’s youth mental health program, agreed that social media is just one factor in the crisis. “But because everyone’s involved in it, it has great influence,” she said. “That’s why we need to take action.”
As pointed out in the advisory, social media use by young people is nearly universal. Up to 95% of young people ages 13-17 report using a social media platform and more than a third say they use social media “almost constantly.”
Murthy said a growing body of research suggests that social media poses a “profound risk” to young people’s mental health, potentially exposing them to violent and sexual content, bullying and harassment.
The surgeon general said: “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.”
Murthy said everyone has a part to play. He urged technology companies and lawmakers to come up with policies to protect young people from “addictive apps and extreme and inappropriate content.”
He said policymakers need to address the harms of social media the same way they regulate such items as car seats, baby formula, medication and other products for children.
Parent involvement is key
Harris, a member of the Tulsa World’s Community Advisory Board who has studied and written about the issue, said the surgeon general’s advisory “really lays out what different groups can do. That hasn’t been done before. It’s taking it to another level.”
And the group with the most direct role to play is still critical, she said.
“Parental involvement is a key, key part of it,” Harris said. “Because policy is not going to move fast enough to fix this.”
Parents might be tempted to prohibit smartphones to limit access to social media, but that’s not the best solution, Harris said.
“It’s not about parents saying ‘you can’t get on your phone.’ That’s not teaching them how to cross the street, so to speak. I really do liken it to crossing a highway. How are they going to navigate the dangers if you’re not teaching them and giving them a chance to try it?”
A better approach, Harris said, includes being fully engaged and aware, having conversations with your kids, and allowing them to ask questions.
Also important is for parents to model proper use with their own online habits, Harris said.
As a society, digital literacy and healthier online habits must be prioritized “because technology is not going away,” she added.
Delk agreed that parents must lead the way.
“We have got to set the standard with our own behaviors,” she said. “Kids are more likely to do what you do instead of what you say.”
A big part of the problem, Delk added, is that kids “are still using an adolescent brain.”
“As a former researcher, brain development is what’s important here,” she said. “Adolescence is a time when your brain is still developing. It’s changing swiftly. Critical thinking is not mature. That has to be understood and taken into account.”
The surgeon general’s advisory comes on the heels of a related CDC report in February.
Using data from 2009-2021, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary and Trends Report confirms that a decline in youth mental health nationally has occurred alongside the rise of social media and smartphones.
Since 2011, mental health conditions and suicidal thoughts and behaviors in teens have increased, with teen girls experiencing the most sadness or hopelessness at 57% (up from 36% in 2011) and 30% saying that they have seriously considered suicide (up from 19% in 2011).
Murthy said: “Our children and adolescents don’t have the luxury of waiting years until we know the full extent of social media’s impact. Their childhoods and development are happening now.”
Delk said whether they are lawmakers, social media companies, parents or teachers, it’s up to the adults to address the problems caused by social media.
“I think as adults we’re all responsible for the welfare and benefit of the youth of America today,” Delk said. “I think if everybody’s on the same page it’s a lot better to turn those pages into a book that’s congruent and healthy and positive.”