Social Media Risks To Young People’s Mental Health Highlighted in Surgeon General Warning

The social media advisory urges the government, parents and internet companies to take measures to protect youth from the potentially harmful mental effects.

The U.S. Surgeon General has issued an advisory warning about the harmful effects of social media on the mental health of youths nationwide.

The Surgeon General Advisory (PDF) was issued on Tuesday, indicating that while some social media use could be beneficial, the effects on the mental health of young people was not fully understood, and there are now clear signs that it can be harmful.

The advisory comes amid a growing number of social media addiction lawsuits filed against 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 raising similar claims that the 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 lawsuits claim these tactics result in social media addiction and self-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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According to the advisory, up to 95% of U.S. youth between the ages of 13 and 17 reportedly use social media platforms, with more than a third saying they are almost constantly on social media. This includes 40% of children ages 8-12.

“More research is needed to fully understand the impact of social media; however, the current body of evidence indicates that while social media may have benefits for some children and adolescents, there are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents,” the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, said in the report. “At this time, we do not yet have enough evidence to determine if social media is sufficiently safe for children and adolescents.”

Murthy called for more research into the effects of social media on youths, but indicated there is already a growing body of data suggesting potential harms. He called for the government, parents and caregivers to take action to minimize potential harm and safeguard children and adolescents’ mental health.

The advisory notes that studies have looked at social media use and found that they may increase the risk of depression, and that limits on social media have resulted in benefits for young adults and adults. Studies report that teens who heavily used social media faced an increased risk of poor sleep, online harassment, poor body image, low self-esteem and higher risks of depression, with girls more at risk than boys.

While calling on tech companies to enforce minimum age limits and for the government to create health and safety standards for social media, Murthy urged parents to take actions as well to protect their children from potential social media mental health damage.

These recommendations include families guiding their children’s social media use by keeping family gatherings, such as meals, free of electronic devices, and creating a family media plan to set boundaries and promote safe use of social media.

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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