Regular readers of Bar Talk will no doubt be familiar with my long-held position that, as a big-picture headline, social media is doing more harm than good in our children’s lives. While that’s not a new message, a new development is significant and worth highlighting.
On May 23rd, for the first time, the US Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murphy, weighed in on the topic and warned that while social media may have benefits to some, there is ample evidence of profound risks of harm to adolescent mental health. (Link to the full 19-page Surgeon General advisory: Social Media and Youth Mental Health (hhs.gov)
It’s fitting that this advisory was issued in May, the annual Mental Health Awareness month. While it’s easy to argue that this warning from the top-ranking health official in the country is overdue, it’s never too late to bring awareness and oversight to this habit that is contributing to widespread problems related to stress, anxiety, depression, and teenage suicide.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, but it’s a topic that deserves our attention every day. While there isn’t enough space here to explore the subject at any length, one crucial fact to be aware of is that in 2023 the percentage of people in the US diagnosed or suffering with untreated mental disorders is at an all-time high. If we narrow the focus to young people, the statistics become even more troubling. The current CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey reports that 4 out of 10 (40%) teens report feeling “persistently sad or hopeless.” In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health in October 2021. Teen girls are particularly at risk, with 57% reporting persistent sadness and hopelessness.
While there are plenty of reasons for this, we no longer have the luxury of speculating that social media is part of the problem. We know it is. Hundreds of studies have been done worldwide to determine the scope and scale of the impact that prolonged exposure to social media has on mental health, especially among teen girls. The data is in, and it’s conclusive. Leading researchers and the Surgeon General largely agree that the results have gone beyond correlation and are now considered causation of mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and suicide or suicidal ideation. As the number of hours of social media usage per day increases, problems rise proportionately. This clear causation is leading to lawsuits against companies like Meta and SnapChat with the allegations they had an early awareness of the risks to teens’ mental health, and despite that knowledge, continue with practices designed to prolong engagement to drive profits.
When we look back to the ancient days of the early 60’s of a cigarette in every hand (including the doctor), it seems crazy that people could claim they had no idea how deadly and toxic the habit was. In 60 years, the next generations will likely be scratching their heads in equal amazement that we let our kids spend hours per day on these sites with the defense that “we didn’t know how bad social media was for teens!”
That said, this is all about awareness. My goal in this limited writing is to shed some light on the subject as it is to be realistic. I’m crystal clear that social media is a part of our lives, it’s not entirely bad, and it’s not going anywhere. The bottom line is that the more time we spend on it, the worse we feel, so an achievable goal is to set daily limits. Data shows that once we spend more than one hour a day on social media, the scales tip from providing enjoyment to leaving us feeling worse than before we started. Forbes published an article on how many hours the average American spends on social media in a year. The answer was 1,300. That equals 3.5 hours per day staring at your phone. Or put another way, that’s 24 hours per week.
We often say, “If I only had more time in the week.” Great news, your wish is granted; that’s an entire extra day per week ready and waiting for us to reclaim and use in ways proven to deliver significant boosts to our mental health. Quick examples include walking in nature and (actually) talking with friends or family.
As a bottom line, plenty of things in life can be harmful if we are not mindful of managing the risks. As much as we enjoy going out on a beautiful sunny day, we take preventive steps to avoid getting burned. We need to be just as diligent in building safe habits around social media and help prevent young people from getting burned by overexposure.