Social Media Age Restrictions Recommended by U.S. Surgeon General

Murthy urged lawmakers to consider forcing social media platforms to put in place age restrictions which limit access for younger users due to mental health risks.

As a growing number of families are now pursue social media addiction lawsuits and it is becoming increasingly clear that algorithms used by Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok and other websites have had a major impact on a generation of young Americans, the U.S. Surgeon General is calling for age restrictions to prevent long-term mental health damage for children.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy made the comments in testimony (PDF) to the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee last week, highlighting what many have described as a growing youth mental health crisis in the U.S.

The hearing sought to explore what is causing it, and what solutions should be explored. Murthy pointed to youth access to social media websites, which is often described as an obsession for many children, as a contributing factor.

The testimony comes as companies like Meta Platforms, Inc., which operates Facebook, as well as Alphabet Inc., Google LLC, YouTube LLC, Snap. Inc., TikTok Inc. and ByteDance Inc., each face a growing number of lawsuits alleging their platforms are intentionally designed to manipulate and maximize user time and engagement, as well as the type of content they view, causing irreparable harm.

The social media addiction lawsuits claim these tactics result in sself-destructive behavior among teens, increasing anxiety, depression, eating disorders and psychological damage, which has led to attempted or actual suicides, especially among young girls.

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“I’m deeply concerned, as a parent and as a doctor, that many of the obstacles that this generation of young people face are unprecedented, and uniquely hard to navigate,” Murthy told Senators. “The resulting impact on the mental health of millions of our children has been devastating.”

Murthy indicated that while a root cause of youth mental health problems is often loneliness, as technology isolates us more and more over time, he also warned the senators about the growing impact of social media on youths’ lives, noting that up to 95% of youths aged 13-17 report using at least one social media platform. More than a third of teens indicated they used social media “almost constantly.”

Last month Murthy issued a Surgeon General Advisory about the growing problem, warning the effects of social media are not yet fully understood, but signs indicate it is clearly harmful to children and teens.

“We are especially concerned about social media use among children because adolescence represents a highly sensitive period of brain development that can make young people more vulnerable to harms from social media. During this period, we know that young people are more prone to engage in risk-taking behaviors, their overall well-being (in terms of mood, physical health, etc.) fluctuates the most, and mental health challenges begin to emerge. We also know that, in early adolescence, when identities and sense of self-worth are forming, brain development is especially susceptible to social pressures, peer opinions, and peer comparison,” Murthy said. “As such, adolescents may experience heightened emotional sensitivity to the communicative and interactive nature of social media.”

Social Media Age Restrictions Recommended

Murthy called on Congress to help provide children with adequate health coverage, and thus mental health coverage, to address mental health challenges early. He also called for focusing on prevention with early intervention programs and school and community-based tools.

However, Murthy also called lawmakers to take action immediately to protect children from potential risks from social media. He urged them to develop age-appropriate health and safety standards and limiting access to social media in ways that makes them safer for children of all ages.

In addition, the Surgeon General said lawmakers should require social media platforms to do a better job of protecting children’s privacy, more research into social media harms, and also called for school curricula to include education on media literacy.

Social Media Lawsuits

In September 2022, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) ordered all social media lawsuits be centralized for pretrial proceedings in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California under Judge Yvonne Gonzales Rogers.

Snap, TikTok and YouTube all opposed including lawsuits against their companies in the same centralized proceedings that were initially sought for the Facebook and Instagram addiction lawsuits, arguing that individualized factual issues involving the different defendants and competing platforms would negate any efficiencies to be gained by centralization. However, the JPML rejected those arguments.

As part of the pretrial management, it is expected that the court will establish several “bellwether” trial tracks involving the different social media platforms, to help the parties gauge how juries are likely to respond to certain evidence and testimony that will be repeated throughout the litigation. However, if the social media addiction settlements are not reached to resolve the claims during the MDL proceedings, each individual lawsuit may later be remanded back to the U.S. District Court where it was originally filed for a future trial.

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