Surgeon General warns of social media's “profound risks” to kids

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US Surgeon General releases advisory on teens and social media warning of “profound risks” to kids

May 24, 2023 -

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Feb. 8, 2022. The Surgeon General is warning there is not enough evidence to show that social media is safe for young people — and is calling on tech companies, parents and caregivers to take "immediate action to protect kids now." (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Feb. 8, 2022. The Surgeon General is warning there is not enough evidence to show that social media is safe for young people — and is calling on tech companies, parents and caregivers to take "immediate action to protect kids now." (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Feb. 8, 2022. The Surgeon General is warning there is not enough evidence to show that social media is safe for young people — and is calling on tech companies, parents and caregivers to take "immediate action to protect kids now." (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Science often trails common sense, and the government often trails science. When technology explodes in the private sector with unprecedented rapidity, both scientific studies and policymakers lag, sometimes to detrimental effects. 

Social media presents the perfect example of this conundrum. 

Myspace launched in 2003, the first social network to reach a worldwide audience. Tuesday, twenty years later, the US Surgeon General released a public statement about the “profound risk” of social media’s harm (PDF) to children and adolescents. 

Dr. Vivek Murthy advises, “Our children have become unknowing participants in a decades-long experiment.” The results of this dramatic experiment do not look good. 

The effects of social media on kids

We’ve written about the risks of social media before, especially for kids, but the Surgeon General’s Advisory brings new credence to the ill effects. 

While the Advisory calls for “more research” in several areas, they came to a few definitive conclusions. 

Kids ages ten to nineteen are in pivotal stages of brain development. Anyone with a teen could tell you how teens are more susceptible to social pressure and “risk-taking behavior.” In this developmental stage, “mental health challenges such as depression typically emerge.” Teens experience heightened emotional sensitivity and impressionability as they struggle to form their sense of identity. 

Enter social media. 

Kids who spend over three hours daily on social media face “double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes including symptoms of depression and anxiety.” Well, eighth through tenth graders spend an average of 3.5 hours per day on social media. 

So average social media use essentially doubles troubled mental health symptoms in teens. 

In addition, one in four eighth through tenth graders spends over five hours a day on social media, while one in seven spends over seven hours a day on social media. Social media often results in bad sleep, which in turn impedes healthy development and increases mental health instability. 

Cyberbullying and brutal, engineered comparison games lead to body-image and eating disorders. Social media-induced “fear of missing out” corresponds with “depression, anxiety, and neuroticism.”

Children can also stumble across content that normalizes self-harm, suicide, hateful content of all persuasions, and risk-taking challenges. Pornography and sexual predators can intercept children through social media. Nearly six in ten girls say strangers have contacted them “in ways that make them feel uncomfortable.” 

We’ve previously discussed how parents today tend to under-monitor internet activity while over-monitoring real-world activities, raising fragile teens unable to cope with the real world but at risk of warped development due to the internet. 

“We must take action” 

The Advisory warns, “Our children and adolescents don’t have the luxury of waiting years until we know the full extent of social media’s impact. Their childhoods and development are happening now.”

Nearly 80 percent of parents believe tech companies bear some responsibility to protect children from these multifaceted harms. Could this rally both sides of the aisle to hold social media companies accountable? While the threat to children remains a top priority, social media undoubtedly upturned our society and shifted America’s social dynamics for adults. The impact on public discourse can barely be overstated. 

The Advisory gave some positives to social media, but even those “benefits” included things like giving LGBTQ+ kids support for their sexuality. Of course, social media can genuinely give rise to free access to education and niche communities based on interest, but this cuts both ways. As kids try to form their identity, trans or queer influencers can present a misleading but appealing message about sexuality.  

Why the government is slow to regulate

As of late, Congress does not seem well-equipped to deal with rising issues of technology. 

In 2018, Mark Zuckerberg stared obliquely at Congress for hours and dodged questions or looked puzzled when Congress members often asked incoherent questions that betrayed a lack of research or a generational difference. 

In March of 2023, Shou Zi Chew, CEO of TikTok, was tortured by Congress members slamming him with one-liners and belligerent questions, all vying for media attention rather than answers. That’s not to say we should trust the Chinese-owned TikTok—we patently should not. Rather, that circus of Chew’s testimony shows that policymakers struggle to keep up with a constantly profoundly changing field of technology. AI development also points to this severe lack of oversight or regulation. 

That said, the US government works slowly on purpose because of the foundational, historical idea of checks and balances. I’m thankful for our government structure, but while the sluggish pace of the federal government helps keeps tyranny at bay, it can cripple us against regulating the rapid expanse of technology. 

As the Advisory makes headlines in major newspapers everywhere, we can hope for an increasingly rare but necessary occurrence: bipartisan cooperation. 

Like seatbelts and airbags, tobacco and nicotine, pharmaceuticals and food, the government regulates behind decades of research and burdens multi-billion dollar companies to promote health and safety. Rightly so, most say. 

Could regulation of this scale happen for social media? Perhaps. 

Until then, parents must do the impossible-seeming task of holding back the floodwaters of social media. 

We’ve given some ideas for healthy boundaries in “Why are teens sadder, lonelier, and more depressed than ever before?” and recommend checking out “Eight Social Media Tips for Families” (PDF) by Terra Mattson from Christian Parenting. 

The Tower of Babel

The Bible Project releases a popular podcast unpacking biblical themes with Hebrew Bible scholar Dr. Tim Mackie and his friend Jon Collins. Right now, they’re going through the theme of the “city.” 

Rereading the Tower of Babel story and hearing them unpack it, it always surprises me that some say the Bible is no longer relevant. The Tower of Babel presents a striking image of humanity’s downfall when it unites behind the purpose of trying to make ourselves godlike. 

Let’s paraphrase the story. Humankind constructs something to make its name great so that it would remain united around the purpose of its own glory. We constructed social media to stay “connected” and express ourselves, to advance our individual and collective greatness. What happened in Babel happened to us. Our language, our once-shared ideas, became muddled beyond recognition. 

The analogy works so well that a prominent secular psychologist and thought leader, Jonathan Haidt, used it in his prophetic article for The Atlantic: “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life have been Uniquely Stupid.

It’s hard to deny our society’s technological progress; it’s equally hard to deny that our sin nature will never be updated out of existence. 

As Christians, we must speak into the culture and “do justice,” “love kindness,” and “walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). 

How should Christian parents deal with social media? 

As Christian parents, we need to lead intentionally with our kids. 

  • Draw boundaries and keep them rock solid. 
  • Educate your kids on the inherent risks, pornography, and stranger danger. 
  • Allow them freedom in proportion to their trustworthiness. 
  • Give them a safe space to talk about things that make them uncomfortable. 
  • Be a loving ear for their woes and keep up a healthy dialogue about their relationship with social media. 
  • Carefully consider at what age to allow them to enter certain sites, if ever. 

The Advisory has other recommendations. 

For more resources, we’d also recommend going over to Christian Parenting and, above all, relying on the guidance of Scripture and the Holy Spirit. 

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