US Surgeon General Sounds the Alarm on Harmful Social Media Use among Youth during Visit to BU
Talking with US Senator Edward Markey (Hon.’04), Vivek Murthy says smartphones and social media apps exacerbate young people’s mental health challenges
Nearly one in three high school girls in the United States seriously contemplated suicide in 2021, and nearly three in five teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless—the highest level reported in nearly a decade, according to recent data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy noted during an appearance at the School of Public Health June 5.
“One in three adolescent girls who consider taking their life—that is an extraordinary number that we should never allow ourselves to get used to or numb to,” Murthy said.
He joined US Senator Ed Markey (Hon.’04) for a Public Health Conversation at the school to discuss solutions to the urgent mental health crisis that is plaguing the nation’s youth at a level unlike any previous generation of young people. More than 1,000 people attended or tuned in to the event, which was held in person and online.
In addition to gun violence and climate change, excessive social media use and social isolation are contributing to the worsening mental health among today’s children and teens, said Murthy, who along with Markey has prioritized improving youth mental health. In extraordinary moves last month, the Surgeon General’s Office issued separate public health warnings about the harms of social media driving insecurities, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem, as well as the nation’s growing “epidemic of loneliness.”
In speaking with youth across the nation, Murthy said, teens have told him that using social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok makes them feel worse about themselves and their friendships, and that they can’t seem to control the time they spend on these sites.
“These platforms are often designed to maximize the amount of time that our kids are spending on these platforms,” he said. One in three adolescents are now saying that they stay up to midnight or later on weeknights on their screens, and that’s predominantly time using social media. What I care about as a parent and as a doctor is maximizing the health and well-being of my kids and all of our kids, and these platforms need to be designed for that outcome.”
Markey noted that he has secured $15 million in funding to support research by the National Institutes of Health that will address the impact of technology and media on children and teens, but said much more needs to be done. He recently reintroduced the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA 2.0), which would prohibit internet companies from collecting personal data of users aged 13 to 16 without consent, ban targeted advertising to children and teens, and establish a “Digital Marketing Bill of Rights” for teens and a youth marketing and privacy division at the Federal Trade Commission.
“Big tech is a big problem,” Markey said. “Big-tech CEOs leverage data about kids and teens and use it against them, serving up an endless stream of toxic content that grabs their attention and keeps them scrolling. We need a definitive statement by the federal government of the impact that social media is having upon the children in our country.”
Both officials said the onus should not be placed on parents to address these issues on their own.
“Parents everywhere are seeing kids in crisis. We cannot put the entire burden of managing social media on the shoulders of parents,” Murthy said. “When a child is ready to drive, we don’t tell a parent, ‘Why don’t you go out and inspect the brakes by yourself?’ because that’s not a reasonable expectation.
The two speakers urged a number of legislative solutions to increase mental health resources and improve access to care, including training more mental health providers, expanding insurance coverage for this care, reducing stigma around mental health, and training kids to maintain healthy relationships.
“A lot of our kids don’t get training or the skills to handle conflict or to understand emotions,” Murthy said, adding that it takes on average of 11 years from when a child exhibits mental health symptoms to receive treatment in the United States. “I actually think those skills are just as important as learning to write and do math in terms of your success in life and your overall health and well-being. And we’ve got to make it easier for people to recognize that there’s no shame in admitting that you need help.”