The Surgeon General on Social Media and Adolescents

Last Sunday, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy gave an interview to CNN about social media use and teenagers. Although most social media companies allow 13-year-olds to sign up for their services, Murthy believes that 13 is too young to have access. 

Readers of this blog know well my views on social media. Quitting was one of the best personal decisions I have made with regard to technology use. It has freed up my time and attention, and allowed me to live in the moment rather than thinking about what I will post about my day. We know from Meta’s own research how harmful these products are for teenagers, as well as for society, in terms of the proliferation of disinformation. In no way am I a Luddite, but the evidence is overwhelming that social media is not in the best interest of young people’s emotional development and sense of well-being.

Murthy’s observations are really powerful. I want to share a number of notable quotes:

  • “It’s a time, you know, early adolescence, where kids are developing their identity, their sense of self. It’s a time where it’s really important for us to be thoughtful about what’s going into how they think about their own self worth and their relationships, and the skewed and often distorted environment of social media often does a disservice to many of those children.” 
  • “We have some of the best designers and product developers in the world who have designed these products to make sure people are maximizing the amount of time they spend on these platforms. And if we tell a child, ‘Use the force of your willpower to control how much time you’re spending [on social media],’ you’re pitting a child against the world’s greatest product designers, and that’s just not a fair fight. And so that’s why I think our kids need help.”
  • “In my house right now, the vast majority of products that I use have to meet some sort of safety standards in order to be sold. That is not true in general of social media.”
  • “When we had dangerous vehicles on the road, we passed laws to make those vehicles less dangerous. We should make decisions to make [social media] a healthier experience that would make kids feel better about themselves and less alone.”

The CNN interview is worth watching.  Although I am doubtful that legislative action will happen, it is worth having a conversation with your child about social media use. It’s important to educate them about privacy and safety—and, about how much of what students might see, typically put out by social influencers and celebrities, creates an illusion of a perfect life that doesn’t match reality. For younger parents whose tweens are no doubt vigorously advocating for access, I would encourage you go into the conversation understanding the core issue and the research that is out there.

To be sure, when one’s friends are all on a social media platform, it can be hard. But this is a transitory feeling that likely will not have long-term effects. (My own kids experienced this, as we did not let them get access to a smartphone until they were older, and, even then, social media wasn’t allowed.) There is, however, evidence that ties social media use to anxiety. See this research from Harvard.

It’s not an easy time to be a parent or a kid, but with thoughtful conversation we can support our students in positive ways.