The Real Damage from Social Media

The U.S. Sur­geon General’s 2023 Social Media and Youth Men­tal Health advi­so­ry out­lines the lat­est sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence regard­ing social media’s effects on youth men­tal health. The report rec­om­mends actions that pol­i­cy­mak­ers, tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies, par­ents and oth­ers can take to ensure the online safe­ty of young peo­ple. This post high­lights key find­ings from the advisory.

Current Levels of Teen Social Media Use.

Vir­tu­al­ly all teens (95%) ages 13 to 17 use social media, with more than 1 in 3 report­ing that they use it ​“almost con­stant­ly.” While most U.S. social media plat­forms require users to be at least 13 years old, near­ly 40% of kids ages 8 to 12 use social media. The advi­so­ry also noted:

  • Ado­les­cents who use social media more than three hours per day face twice the risk of expe­ri­enc­ing poor men­tal health outcomes.
  • A recent sur­vey found that eighth and 10th grade stu­dents spend an aver­age of 3.5 hours per day on these platforms.

Negative Effects of Social Media on Mental Health and Well-Being.

Numer­ous stud­ies show that high­er lev­els of social media use among chil­dren and ado­les­cents are linked to adverse effects, includ­ing depres­sion and anx­i­ety, inad­e­quate sleep (which can dis­rupt neu­ro­log­i­cal devel­op­ment and lead to depres­sion and sui­ci­dal behav­iors), low self-esteem, poor body image, eat­ing dis­or­der behav­iors and online harass­ment. These risks are greater for girls ver­sus boys and for those already expe­ri­enc­ing men­tal health issues. Addi­tion­al risks include:

  • Near­ly 2 in 3 ado­les­cents are ​“often” or ​“some­times” exposed to hate-based con­tent on social media.
  • Stud­ies have found a con­nec­tion between social media cyber­bul­ly­ing and depres­sion among young people.
  • Teen girls and LGBTQ youth are more like­ly to expe­ri­ence cyber­bul­ly­ing and online harass­ment, which can lead to neg­a­tive emotions.

Adolescence Is a Vulnerable Phase of Development.

The mount­ing evi­dence regard­ing social media’s adverse effects on youth is espe­cial­ly con­cern­ing giv­en that ado­les­cence is a crit­i­cal peri­od of devel­op­ment, when dif­fer­ent areas of the brain begin to inte­grate and the pre­frontal cor­tex devel­ops at an accel­er­at­ed pace. In this phase, the brain is espe­cial­ly open to learn­ing and grow­ing, and teens may have inten­si­fied sen­si­tiv­i­ty to the nature of social media, accord­ing to the Sur­geon General’s advi­so­ry. Ado­les­cence also involves pro­found phys­i­o­log­i­cal changes — these young peo­ple are simul­ta­ne­ous­ly nav­i­gat­ing increas­ing auton­o­my, form­ing their iden­ti­ties, devel­op­ing rela­tion­ships and more. Thus, the poten­tial effects of social media dur­ing this vul­ner­a­ble phase war­rant par­tic­u­lar attention.

Are There Benefits to Using Social Media?

In some cas­es, social media can pro­vide social sup­port from peers or oth­ers, which may be espe­cial­ly ben­e­fi­cial for mar­gin­al­ized young peo­ple, such as sex­u­al and gen­der minori­ties. For instance, accord­ing to the Sur­geon General’s advi­so­ry, social media may boost the men­tal health of LGBTQ youth by fos­ter­ing con­nec­tions with peers, facil­i­tat­ing iden­ti­ty devel­op­ment and enabling social support.

Research also indi­cates that social media-based men­tal health inter­ven­tions may be use­ful tools for kids and teens, and they may help young peo­ple learn to seek help or pro­fes­sion­al care when need­ed. In this sense, social media plat­forms could serve as a gate­way to men­tal health care or at least online social sup­port as a buffer against stressors.

How to Protect Teens on Social Media?

While social media offers ben­e­fits for some, grow­ing evi­dence of its poten­tial harm to many chil­dren and youth has led the Sur­geon Gen­er­al to issue an urgent, cross-sec­tor call to action:

For Policymakers:

  • Strength­en pro­tec­tions to ensure greater safe­ty for chil­dren inter­act­ing with all social media plat­forms, such as devel­op­ing age-appro­pri­ate health and safe­ty stan­dards, requir­ing a high­er stan­dard of data pri­va­cy for chil­dren and strength­en­ing and enforc­ing age minimums.
  • Ensure tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies share data rel­e­vant to the health effects of their platforms.
  • Sup­port increased fund­ing for future research on both the benefits and harms of social media use and oth­er tech­nol­o­gy and dig­i­tal media use for chil­dren, ado­les­cents and families.

For Technology Companies:

  • Con­duct and facil­i­tate trans­par­ent and inde­pen­dent assess­ments of the impact of social media prod­ucts and ser­vices on chil­dren and adolescents.
  • Pri­or­i­tize user health and safe­ty in the design and devel­op­ment of social media prod­ucts and ser­vices to min­i­mize harm to chil­dren and adolescents.
  • Cre­ate effec­tive and time­ly sys­tems and process­es to inves­ti­gate requests and com­plaints from young peo­ple, fam­i­lies, edu­ca­tors and others.

For Parents and Caregivers:

  • Cre­ate a fam­i­ly media plan with agreed-upon expec­ta­tions to estab­lish healthy social media bound­aries at home.
  • Cre­ate tech-free zones and encour­age in-per­son inter­ac­tions, which may involve lim­it­ing use of devices around bed­time and meal­times, pri­or­i­tiz­ing fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships and build­ing social bonds.
  • Mod­el respon­si­ble social media behav­ior, as chil­dren often learn from what they see around them.

Over­all, pol­i­cy­mak­ers, tech com­pa­nies, researchers, fun­ders, fam­i­lies, advo­cates and oth­ers must work togeth­er on mul­ti-pronged strate­gies to cre­ate safe and healthy social media envi­ron­ments for young people.

Learn More About Social Media and Teen Mental Health.