US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wants to see both the government and private industry step up and reduce the mental health risks of social media for young people.
Dr. Murthy called the impact of digital platforms on teenage well-being a “pivotal issue in public health” during an event on October 13 marking the launch of the Center for Digital Thriving at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Up until now the burden has been placed on parents, he said, but it’s clear that resolving the problem will require a broader effort.
“Everywhere I traveled across America the most common question I was getting from parents was about social media,” said US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. “What they wanted to know was very simple: ‘Is social media safe for my kids?’ And they were not getting an answer even though millions of children are on social media.”
It’s not the first time Murthy has raised the alarm. In May, he issued an advisory—the first-ever government report on social media and youth mental health. “The report included data that rendered a disturbing picture,” reported Liz Mineo for the Harvard Gazette.
“Among them was a survey that found that nearly half of adolescents said being on the digital platforms made them feel worse about their bodies. Another showed that six out of 10 girls said they were approached by strangers on social media in ways that made them feel uncomfortable. All the data highlighted that young users are exposed to bullying, harassment, extreme violence, and hate speech, which can lead to depression and anxiety.”
As we reported on this blog, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Psychological Association, Design It For Us, Fairplay, and ParentsTogether recently published a report entitled “Likes vs. Learning: The Real Cost of Social Media for Schools,” in which the partners drew attention to the widespread negative impact of social media on children’s well-being, including increased anxiety, depression, and addictive-like behaviors.
Surgeon General Murthy and the Director of National Drug Control Policy Rahul Gupta also recently warned in an op-ed on USA Today that “Every day brings more evidence that our nation’s youth are facing a mental health crisis: rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts among young people are on the rise, and so are adolescent deaths from drug poisoning. By late 2021, the number of adolescents dying from drug poisoning each month had more than doubled, with 84 percent of these deaths involving illicit fentanyl, including fake prescription pills. Two out of every 5 of these young people also had mental health issues.”
Despite the shocking numbers, “almost none of the people ages 12–17 who had both a mental health condition and a substance use disorder received care for both conditions. Stigma against these conditions, barriers to care, and families not knowing where to turn for help all played a role,” wrote Drs. Gupta and Murthy.
Safety standards should be put in place by both policymakers and technology companies, but until that happens, parents can establish some safeguards, such as creating tech-free zones for children and their families, Murthy said at the Harvard event. Children can also regulate their social media use, block unhealthy content, and take breaks from their phones. Educators can also help train both young people and parents in digital literacy.
“Our job, as parents, educators, and just people who care about children, is to make sure that they have a foundation on which they can build a healthy and fulfilling life, and that means creating a healthy, safe digital experience for children,” said Murthy. “That is where I feel we need to continue to make this an urgent issue.”
Excessive social media and smartphone use can lead to sleep deprivation and exacerbate existing anxiety issues and states of depression. Many teens try to self-medicate their symptoms with drugs and alcohol—an approach that will fairly quickly worsen any mental health symptoms and create dangerous new problems.
There is a new treatment option for at-risk teenagers in the Denver area. Avanti Behavioral Health offers an intensive outpatient program (IOP) for clients between the ages of 13 and 18 in Greenwood Village, Colorado. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, holistic, family-centered, and trauma-informed care for teens.
We believe that recovery from a substance use disorder is a process that should involve the entire immediate family. We have developed an effective and highly involved method of family counseling. For more information about our IOP and family programming call us at (720) 753-4030.