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Surgeon General’s advice on the risks of social media use by young people could change the conversation

A new public health warning issued this week by the US Surgeon General explores concerns that social media use among children and teens poses serious risks that science is only beginning to understand.

“…The current body of evidence indicates that while social media may have benefits for some children and adolescents, there are many indicators that social media may also have a significant risk of harming mental health and well-being. -be children and adolescents,” U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy wrote in the advisory. “At the moment, we don’t yet have enough evidence to determine whether social media is safe enough for children and adolescents.”

The advisory acknowledges the positive impacts of young people’s use of social media, noting that social platforms connect young people with others who share their interests and identity while promoting self-expression. These benefits are well explored and basically pervasive at this point, but the more hidden and potentially lasting negative effects of social media on young people are much less explored.

“Almost all American teens use social media, yet we don’t have enough evidence to conclude it’s safe enough for them,” the advisory warns. “Our children have become unwitting participants in a decades-long experiment.”

Like many phenomena emerging from the tech scene, social media has indeed evolved rapidly while breaking things over the past decade and changing, reshaping social behavior and the human brain in the process. While the adult brain is stable enough to withstand these changes, this report and others sound the alarm that children and adolescents are now routinely exposed to forces that can have lasting negative effects on the brain and behavior. .

“Adolescents, ages 10 to 19, are going through a very sensitive period of brain development,” Murthy wrote. “…During early adolescence, when identities and feelings of self-worth are being formed, brain development is particularly susceptible to social pressures, peer opinions, and comparison with peers.”

A recent study by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill imaged the brains of middle school students and found that how often they check social media apps (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat) correlates with changes in the amygdala that corresponded to continued sensitivity to rewards and punishments. Other studies have explored how social media rejection might affect brain structures that respond to social stimuli, noting that these responses are amplified in young, developing brains.

“Because adolescence is a vulnerable period of brain development, exposure to social media during this time warrants closer examination,” Murthy wrote.

The advisory acknowledges the disproportionate burden that parents and families are now shouldering, navigating the use of social media without adequate tools and resources to properly protect young people from potential harm. Murthy calls on policymakers and tech companies to come together for a “multiplying approach” that the US has followed with other products that pose risks to children:

“The United States has a long tradition of acting in such circumstances. In the case of toys, transportation, and drugs, among other widely adopted sectors impacting children, the United States has often taken a safety-focused approach to mitigate the risk of harm to consumers. According to this principle, a basic threshold of safety must be met, and until safety is demonstrated by rigorous evidence and independent evaluation, safeguards are put in place to minimize the risk of product damage, services or goods.

Specific policy recommendations from the Surgeon General include implementing higher standards for youth data privacy, enforcing minimum ages, furthering research in these areas, and incorporating education into digital media in cirriculums.

Earlier this month, a report from the American Psychological Association also flagged the serious potential harms of social media on brain development and encouraged open dialogue between children and parents around their online activity. While this report and the Surgeon General’s opinion ultimately present social media as a neutral tool that is ‘not inherently beneficial or harmful to young people’, the latter presents the issue as part of a public health crisis. , calling for urgent action to mitigate the potential harm to developing minds that are increasingly permeating online spaces.

While the advisory itself isn’t guaranteed to move the needle, it helpfully presents young people’s use of social media as a public health crisis – a change for an issue that is often reported to parents or defined by the tech companies’ own pink talking points. In the past, advice from the surgeon general has reshaped the national dialogue around public health threats like smoking and drunk driving. They also launched eras of fearmongering without evidence, such as a 1982 advisory that warned that video games were dangerous for young people. (Contrary to that advice, Murthy’s new report is associated with a much deeper emerging body of scientific evidence.)

The White House followed the surgeon general’s office with its own proposal to launch an interagency task force on the issue, bringing together agencies such as the Department of Education, the FTC and the DOJ to coordinate the mental health crisis. young people. What will happen to these notices remains to be seen – and many different political agendas are masquerading as child protection efforts. Task forces have a reputation for being ineffective, but slowly shifting the conversation around social media and children’s mental health into a public health framework could prove helpful in the long run.

The issue comes up time and time again during congressional hearings, but the possibility of thoughtful US regulation addressing the technology’s ability to manipulate the behavior of young users while monetizing their data continues to trump partisan politics and political demagoguery. As the EU passes significant new rules for social media like the Digital Services Act, US lawmakers continue to fail on fundamental, cross-platform issues like data privacy and dangerous content.

“Our children and adolescents do not have the luxury of waiting years until we know the full extent of social media’s impact,” the advisory warns. “Their childhood and development is happening now.”

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