Mental Health
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'Profound risk of harm': Surgeon General issues warning about youth social media use

Advisory calls for urgent action to protect mental health of tweens and teens.
By Rebecca Ruiz  on 
Illustrated teen girl is overwhelmed looking at a large phone with negative emoji popping out at her.
The U.S. Surgeon General issues urgent warning about teen mental health and social media use. Credit: lerbank / iStock / Getty Images Plus

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory Tuesday declaring what many families already know to be true: Social media use may cause harm to children and adolescents.

Murthy's 19-page advisory(opens in a new tab) outlines the ways in which social media can expose children to violence, sexual and hate-based content, disordered eating, bullying, and predatory and self-harming behaviors. Though it's difficult to pinpoint whether these types of exposures lead to poor mental health, the advisory lists numerous studies that demonstrate an association between the two experiences.

"Nearly every teenager in America uses social media, and yet we do not have enough evidence to conclude that it is sufficiently safe for them," says the advisory. "Our children have become unknowing participants in a decades-long experiment."

While noting the good that can come from youth connecting with peers, learning more about their interests, and accessing spaces for self-expression, the report underscores potential harms. It specifically calls on technology companies and policymakers to develop solutions, rather than placing the burden of ensuring safety on children and their parents.

The recommendations for technology companies include: the creation of systems that efficiently address complaints from young users, families, and educators; use of default settings for children that ensure the highest safety and privacy standards; and implementation of platform design and algorithms that "prioritize health and safety."

Policymakers are charged with requiring a higher data privacy standard for children; ensuring companies share the health impacts of their products with researchers and the public; and pursuing policies that limit access to social media by strengthening and enforcing age minimums, among other recommendations.

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The advisory is the latest effort to draw attention to worsening mental health amongst adolescents and teens. Earlier this month, the American Psychological Association issued new guidelines for youth social media use that focused on preventing harm.

In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published data showing(opens in a new tab) that, in 2021, teen girls experienced record levels of sexual violence and sadness, and that three quarters of LGBQ+ teens expressed persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, with nearly one in four LGBQ+ teens reporting a suicide attempt.

Murthy issued a separate advisory in 2021(opens in a new tab) on protecting youth mental health, which described the challenges that today's young people face as "unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate."

"We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis," Murthy said in a statement(opens in a new tab) regarding his latest advisory, "and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis — one that we must urgently address."

If you're feeling suicidal or experiencing a mental health crisis, please talk to somebody. You can reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988; the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860; or the Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. Text "START" to Crisis Text Line at 741-741. Contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m. ET, or email [email protected](opens in a new tab). If you don't like the phone, consider using the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline Chat at in a new tab). Here is a list of international resources(opens in a new tab).

Rebecca Ruiz is a Senior Reporter at Mashable. She frequently covers mental health, digital culture, and technology. Her areas of expertise include suicide prevention, screen use and mental health, parenting, youth well-being, and meditation and mindfulness. Prior to Mashable, Rebecca was a staff writer, reporter, and editor at NBC News Digital, special reports project director at The American Prospect, and staff writer at Forbes. Rebecca has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and a Master's in Journalism from U.C. Berkeley. In her free time, she enjoys playing soccer, watching movie trailers, traveling to places where she can't get cell service, and hiking with her border collie.

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