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What Is the U.S. Surgeon General Saying About Social Media?
He cites a "profound risk of harm." Yikes.
The U.S. Surgeon General has taken a bold and unprecedented step to warn about the negative effects of social media on children and adolescents. Dr. Vivek Murthy released an official advisory on May 23 that cites a “profound risk of harm.” He warned that there is inadequate evidence to determine whether social media is sufficiently safe for children and adolescents and that we must urgently take action to create safe and healthy digital environments that protect young people during critical stages of development.
Adolescents are not “just smaller adults,” Dr. Murthy said. Youth between the ages of 10 and 19 are undergoing a highly sensitive period of brain development. They are more prone to risk-taking; they are forming personal identities and learning mood regulation; they are susceptible to peer pressure and comparison. In other words, they are poorly equipped to be using technology that was originally designed for adults (and that even adults struggle to resist). Adolescents do appear to be suffering as a result of the largely uncontrolled and excessive social media use that now dominates their daily lives.
The 19-page advisory offers several pages of recommendations aimed at policymakers, technology companies, parents and caregivers, children and adolescents, and researchers. The recommendations range from improving privacy and transparency when it comes to collecting data, developing digital literacy curricula in schools, enforcing age use minimums, redesigning platforms for healthier/safer use, and continuing to research the effects of social media on development. Most relevant to readers are the sections aimed at parents and kids. Parents are told to:
Create a family media plan.
Create tech-free zones and encourage children to foster in-person friendships.
Model responsible social media behavior.
Teach kids about technology and empower them to be responsible online participants at the appropriate age.
Report cyberbullying and online abuse and exploitation.
Work with other parents to help establish shared norms and practices and to support programs and policies around healthy social media use.
Children and adolescents are encouraged to:
Reach out for help if they’re being negatively affected by social media in some way.
Create boundaries to help balance online and offline activities.
Develop protective strategies and healthy practices.
Be cautious about what you share.
None of these recommendations should come as a surprise, but there is something significant about them being delivered in the form of an official advisory. Advisories do not wield legal or political power, but they do play a role in shaping national conversations; they raise red flags about issues that we may be vaguely aware of as being troublesome but unsure of how to tackle. Advisories have been used in the past to raise awareness about smoking in the 1960s, HIV/AIDS, obesity, and, more recently, the epidemics of gun violence and loneliness in the U.S.
What’s the Concern?
The advisory points out that a majority of parents are worried about their kids’ social media use and how it can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety, lower self-esteem, harassment or bullying, feeling pressured to act a certain way, and exposure to explicit content. “Social media may also perpetuate body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviors, social comparison, and low self-esteem, especially among adolescent girls,” the document says.
While he acknowledges that there are situations in which social media can be a positive force for kids, particularly those in need of community support, Murthy expressed concern that excessive use can displace crucial activities like sleep and exercise. I’d add a litany of other activities to that list, too, like talking to people face-to-face, maintaining focus, reading books, learning practical life skills, and pitching in around the house.
As has been my mantra for years now, it’s a basic question of time management: When screens are allowed to occupy so much of one’s time—and we’re talking a daily average of 8 hours, 39 minutes per teen outside of school hours, which represents a huge chunk of time—kids miss out on other experiences that are valuable components of a well-rounded childhood. There just aren’t enough hours in the day.
I can tell that the advisory, while raising the alarm, still treats the topic with caution. There is a reluctance to come out and say, for example, that kids shouldn’t be using any social media before a certain age, as recommended by some researchers who would like to see the age of Internet majority raised from 13 to 16 or even 18. Murthy is trying to work within the limitations of a society that has flung itself headlong into device use without making parents feel too bad about inadvertently letting their kids become totally and utterly addicted, but his message is clear: We don’t know enough yet, which means we should pull back. It’s best to err on the side of caution.
This advisory offers profound validation for those of us who are uncomfortable with the status quo and are fighting against it. It proves that we’re not disconnected Luddites, failing to “get with the times” (as I was advised to do by one principal when I challenged the excessive use of YouTube as a teaching tool in my son’s classroom). It certainly adds to my determination to delay my kids’ smartphone ownership—a fact that will, no doubt, disappoint them!
The Problem of Excess
I think the problem lies in excessive use. Many of the concerns raised by the advisory would not be issues if device use did not dominate so many hours of kids’ days. Moderation is key. As Cal Newport points out in his excellent book, Digital Minimalism, cutting back on screen time should not be viewed as extreme; what’s extreme is how much time everyone else is spending on their devices, how they’re willing to fritter away years just scrolling. Digital minimalists, by contrast, are far more concerned about what they know they’re missing in real life than what they might be missing online. I believe this is the most powerful message for parents and kids alike—that there is a rich, deep world of experience waiting on the other side of the screen, if you can figure out at a way to put it down. There’s so much to gain by unplugging.
Indeed, the advisory cites research that found an increase in subjective wellbeing from the deactivation of social media platforms. Kids thrive when they’re no longer on display or witnessing the details of others’ private lives. We know that empathy increases with time spent offline. This should be obvious: We are not meant to perform every minute of every day. We all need a break; we all need privacy, which is not hard to find, as Margaret Atwood pointed out in a recent interview on Offline With Jon Favreau, if we just get off our phones.
The advisory is welcome news for digital minimalism advocates like me. The more official attention this issue gets, the better off our children will be.
In Related News:
Please check out my opinion piece in the Toronto Star, May 23, 2023: How to get your kids off screens and into the outdoors
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