Many years ago, a group of researchers and activists warned about the potential dangers of children’s use of social networks. The warnings resonated emotionally, since so many people I know — young and old — struggle with their relationships with apps like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. It seems logical that what many people feel as a kind of malaise after excessive swiping manifests as something more serious in others — especially in young men.
Concern about the situation has contributed to a surge this year in nationwide regulation aimed at keeping kids off their phones. (The other reason, of course, is the utter failure of Congress to act.)
I’ve always been sympathetic to the idea that young people need more protection from the social networks they use every day. But I also have doubts about how forcefully we should force them to intervene. Data on the relationship between children and adolescents, social networks, and mental health have been slow to emerge, limited in scope, and contradictory in their findings. Looking at the research done so far, I’ve found myself more than once raising my hand in bewilderment.
After compiling more than a decade of research, they have concluded that the potential for harm is high
Recently, however, I’ve begun to feel like we’re making real progress in understanding how social networks affect young people. For many children, frequent use of social products seems like a bad thing for them. And the search now appears strong enough that lawmakers can be confident of ordering more companies that produce it.
This was my main conclusion today after reading today’s Surgeon General’s advice on social media and young people’s mental health. Over the course of 19 quick pages, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and his team have compiled more than a decade of research into the risks posed by social networks and concluded that the potential for harm is high. While the report also offers a welcome acknowledgment of the benefits that social networks provide to young people, it also highlights specific areas where action from social networks, legislators and parents has been long overdue.
“Almost every teen in America uses social media, yet we don’t have enough evidence to conclude that it is safe enough for them,” the Surgeon General wrote. “Our children have become unaware participants in a decades-long experiment. It is critical that independent researchers and technology companies work together to rapidly advance our understanding of the impact of social media on children and adolescents.”
The full report is worth reading in its entirety. But many aspects of the Surgeon General’s findings are worth discussing.
First, children start using social media at a very young age. The report found that two out of five children started using social networks between the ages of 8 and 12 – a very poor time since it seems unlikely to me that the potential benefits outweigh the risks. This comes despite the fact that the companies’ terms of service usually prohibit children under the age of 13 from using it. Platforms should do more to keep young children off their platforms — and not publicly indulge them with silly growth hack products like Messenger Kids from Meta.
Secondly, we learn a lot about what Species Of children are more likely to be affected by social networks. teenage girls include; Children with mental health problems. children who have been subjected to cyberbullying; children with body image issues and disordered eating; And children whose sleep patterns have been disrupted by social media. Parents of children in these categories should pay particular attention to their children’s use of social media.
“Changes in brain structure are similar to changes observed in individuals with drug abuse or gambling addiction.”
Third, there is increasing evidence that frequent use of social media can negatively affect body development. “Small studies have shown that people who use social media frequently and problematic can experience changes in brain structure similar to changes observed in individuals with substance abuse or gambling addiction,” the report states.
Furthermore, she notes, “A prospective, longitudinal study of adolescents without ADHD symptoms at study start found that, over two years of follow-up, high-frequency digital media use, with social media as one of the most common.” activities, was associated with a modest yet statistically significant odds of developing ADHD symptoms.”
Fourth, a simple intervention that appears to produce significantly positive results is simply reducing the time children spend using it. Spending more than three hours a day on social networks doubles the risk of poor mental health outcomes, including depression and anxiety. Voluntary screen time controls don’t seem to do enough here; Lawmakers should consider creating and enforcing daily time limits on apps like this.
All that said, it is clear that the use of social networks has real benefits for young people. Most Young, even. There is a reason 95% of them use it!
“For example,” according to the report, “studies have shown that social media may support the mental health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, transgender, gay, bisexual, and other youth by enabling peer connection, developing Identity, management and social support”.
Seven out of ten teenage girls of color report that they encounter positive or identity-affirming content related to race on social media platforms. The majority of teens report that social media helps them feel more accepted (58%), like they have people who can support them through difficult times (67%), like they have a place to show their creative side (71%), and are more connected to what’s going on in their lives their friends (80%).
And in other cases, the authors found research indicating that social media actually prompts some children with mental health care problems to seek treatment, in part because they learn about it there.
This is useful, I think, because it helps us understand to whom social networks can be particularly useful. Understanding how and why LGBT children disproportionately benefit from these networks, for example, can help platforms make themselves safer and more useful to everyone.
Of course, we still don’t know much. This is partly because, to harken back to an old hobby, the platforms are still very stingy with data that might help researchers understand them better. Part of this is for good user privacy reasons; Part of it for bad reason is not really wanting to deeply understand the damage their platforms can cause.
We have enough data to make good recommendations for platforms, legislators, parents and kids
“There is widespread concern within the scientific community that the lack of access to data and lack of transparency from technology companies has been a barrier to understanding the full scope and magnitude of the impact of social media on mental health and well-being,” the Surgeon of the Year report states.
I do hope this changes, though. Thanks to the EU Digital Services Act, academic researchers now have a legal way to securely request and study platform data, which I imagine would be hugely beneficial to the cause of better understanding the effects of social networks on mental health and many other issues.
In the meantime, we have enough data to make good recommendations for platforms, legislators, and parents and kids. For the platforms, good suggestions include conducting independent assessments of the effects of their products on children and adolescents; establish scientific advisory committees to inform on product development; and share data with researchers in a way that protects privacy.
Recommendations for policy makers include establishing age-appropriate health and safety standards for platforms; fund more research on this topic; And stop growth and interaction tricks for kids.
There are a lot of things to take into consideration. And I know that many of you – especially those who work in social platforms – may still not be convinced by the available evidence.
But the more data we see, the harder it becomes for me to keep an open mind on this topic, especially for younger children in the above-mentioned risk groups. If I were to become a parent, I would seek to keep my children away from the media during middle school. (Although I imagine I won’t be able to completely prevent them from some of the unmoderated use of YouTube and TikTok.) I also plan to continue to monitor their social media use and any effects it may have on their mental health through school.
When I first started writing a newsletter about social networking, the consequences of children using it were pretty vague. But little by little, we are beginning to understand both the risks and the benefits. And on the question of whether the use of social networks poses risks to children, today’s Surgeon General’s warning indicates that the answer is a definite yes.