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Social media spreads "extreme, inappropriate, and harmful" content to adolescents, says surgeon general

The United States surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, issued a new advisory warning of the mental health effects of social media on young people. While noting some benefits of the online platforms, the report warns of increasing concern and "ample indicators" that social media can have "a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents." 

The 19-page report, released Tuesday, acknowledges that further research is needed, and that youth wellbeing is shaped by many complex factors, including screentime, content, and countless strengths and vulnerabilities of individual users.

But the headline of the advisory is a stark warning. With around 100 studies and surveys cited, the report analyzes social media's influence on everything from kids' body image to their social wellbeing to their sleep patterns. Dr. Murthy is calling for urgent action in the development and implementation of safer online policies and practices. 

"The most common question parents ask me is, 'is social media safe for my kids?' The answer is that we don't have enough evidence to say it's safe, and in fact, there is growing evidence that social media use is associated with harm to young people's mental health," Murthy said in a statement.

Research cited in the advisory shows how platforms including Facebook, Instagram and TikTok have solidified their position within American society, with up to 95% of people ages 13-17 engaged online and more than a third saying they use social media "almost constantly." The report also details how the rise in social media platforms has proven to be associated with an increase in depression and anxiety, and may have contributed to more than 300,000 new cases of depression across U.S. college campuses. 

Although these platforms commonly require a minimum user age of 13, nearly 40% of children in the U.S. ages 8–12 use social media. The report from one of America's top public health officials explores the vulnerabilities of these young minds, linking frequent social media use with possible shifts in the parts of the brain responsible for emotional impulse control, emotional learning and moderating social behavior. It states that for certain developmental stages, for example girls 11–13 years old and boys 14–15 years old, adolescent social media use can be predictive of a subsequent decrease in life satisfaction. 

"Once on social media, it's easy for kids to get sucked in because their frontal lobe—the thinking part of their brain—is not fully developed," Dr. Jaclyn Halpern, a psychologist at Washington Behavioral Medicine Associates told 60 Minutes in light of the report. "The content keeps them coming back for more even when it's not good for them, even when it makes them feel bad. It really hits on the emotions that can make them more vulnerable." 

According to the surgeon general's advisory, "extreme, inappropriate, and harmful" content continues to be easily and widely accessible, and Dr. Murthy points to the tech platforms, writing that, "content can be spread through direct pushes, unwanted content exchanges, and algorithmic designs." Issues ranging from eating disorders to stunted sleeping patterns, to sexual exploitation, self-harm, acute depressive episodes, and even to possible factors that lead to suicide and the onset of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are stated as possibly being linked to youth screentime and social media use. 

The final pages of the advisory call on policymakers, tech companies, parents, users, and researchers to mind their roles in addressing this urgent public health issue through more rigorous safety standards for young users, aiming to better protect them not only from harmful content, but exploitative design and data collection features.  

"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." Dr. Murthy wrote. "At a moment when we are experiencing a national youth mental health crisis, now is the time to act swiftly and decisively to protect children and adolescents from risk of harm." 

As 60 Minutes reported in December, more than 1,200 families are pursuing lawsuits against social media companies. These suits allege that content and features on social media platforms have a deeply detrimental impact on the mental health of children, and in some cases, lead to children's deaths.  More than 150 lawsuits are expected to move forward this year.

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