It’s Time to Rethink Our Social Media Use

The time is right to take healthy steps toward protecting young people immersed in technology.

‘Social Media’
‘Social Media’ (photo: Viktollio / Shutterstock)

The U.S. Surgeon General issued a 25-page advisory regarding social media usage and the negative effects it’s having on our youth. It wasn’t the first time that a large advocacy organization sounded the alarm about social media and youth, as on Feb. 14, the chief science officer of the American Psychological Association testified in front of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee regarding similar concerns. For years, despite the benefits that social media has brought, a large body of evidence has accumulated about the many negative effects it has on youth, especially those who are immersed in it each day.

As noted by Dr. Murthy in the advisory:

Children are exposed to harmful content on social media, ranging from violent and sexual content, to bullying and harassment. And for too many children, social media use is compromising their sleep and valuable in-person time with family and friends. 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.

Research has indicated that youth who spend more than three hours a day on social media are at twice the risk for anxiety and depressive symptoms; a recent survey in 2021 found that teens spend an average of 3.5 hours a day. Furthermore, social media has consistently been shown to be associated with bodily dissatisfaction in teen girls, leading to disordered eating. Decreased self-esteem and self-concept have also been consistently found. 

Meanwhile, adolescents ages 10-19 experience a “highly sensitive” period of brain development that is associated with risk-taking, identity, emotional regulation and other key areas that have a long-term impact. Research has increasingly found that social media may be associated with distinct changes in the brain, involving the prefrontal cortex and amygdala, which could increase emotional sensitivity to social feedback. In other words, there is a real concern that social media is making it harder for teens to regulate their affective state, and facilitating an increased emotional fragility that is leading to many negative mental health outcomes. Not surprisingly, preliminary studies have found that when social media use is decreased among young adults and teens, improvements in depressive symptoms, life satisfaction and anxiety, among other factors, were noted. 

While this is sobering information that seems to be coming at an inopportune time, as many of our youth are immersed in social media and depend on it regularly for much of their socialization, the reality is that it provides opportunities for us as parents, caregivers, teachers, health care providers, and many others who are deeply invested in the health and future of the younger generations.

First, it validates many of the concerns that have been voiced over social media and how it is being used. In the past decade or more, I have had countless conversations with parents and school personnel about their serious concerns regarding youth using social media and their devices. Yet many of these same people have also bemoaned feeling alone and powerless in making the decisions they believe are best due to the trends of today. Now with clear warnings being sounded on multiple fronts, backed by a large body of scientific research, it is a perfect time for all involved with youth to have serious conversations about how we all can and should reprioritize health and well-being. Conversations should be focused on (but not limited to) the following:

  • Parents’ consent and support of youth at any age using social media and devices
  • School policies regarding social media and device usage, including in the classrooms and other spaces
  • Safe, healthy options for youth in accessing the internet and being able to communicate with peers without dependence on social media and devices
  • Scientifically supported ways to promote safety and well-being when it comes to device usage

Beyond this, the time is right for us as citizens to lobby and advocate for our government to take clear action to support everyone in taking healthy steps to protect our youth’s well-being when it comes to this area. Several other countries have already taken steps to do so, and we in the United States need to remember that no matter what the trends, there is nothing more important than the health and safety of our youth.

For those who are concerned that our youth and society are too immersed to “pull back” on privileges already extended, we shouldn’t forget that throughout history, there have been situations in which privileges were extended to youth only to later realize that the public good suffered without restrictions and requirements being put in place. One of these examples involves driving a motor vehicle. Originally there was no age restriction, until it became clear that this needed to be imposed for the safety of all involved and the public good.

So, when it comes to youth, social media and devices, all of us should consider the opportunity in front of us, and consider how we can be courageous in doing what is best. In the process, I have a vision for how technology truly could be an asset as it was designed to be, rather than the increasing challenge it has become. I hope you will consider being part of this vision now, and in the days to come. 

The popular social-media app is Chinese-owned.

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