Social media a “lifeline” for some youths
Last week, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory warning that social media is bad for teens’ and youths’ mental health.
“The most common question parents ask me is, ‘is social media safe for my kids’. The answer is that we don’t have enough evidence to say it’s safe, and in fact, there is growing evidence that social media use is associated with harm to young people’s mental health,” said U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy in the announcement.
“Children are exposed to harmful content on social media, ranging from violent and sexual content, to bullying and harassment. And for too many children, social media use is compromising their sleep and valuable in-person time with family and friends. We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis, and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis – one that we must urgently address.”
Murthy’s statement reflects his most recent warning of a loneliness epidemic affecting Americans’ health and has even written a book on the subject: “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.”
The advisory highlights the growing body of research that suggests a strong link between excessive social media use and negative mental health outcomes among young people. Social media platforms have become an integral part of adolescents’ lives, shaping their social interactions and self-perception.
Regular usage of social media can potentially lead to noticeable alterations in the developing brain, specifically in two key regions: the amygdala, responsible for emotional learning and behavior, and the prefrontal cortex, which plays a crucial role in impulse control, emotional regulation, and moderating social behavior. This may result in an increased sensitivity to social rewards and punishments.
The constant exposure to idealized representations of others’ lives during a time when their brains and identities are still developing has negative consequences but to what extent is not known.
The impact of social media usage on children and teens can vary depending on the amount of time spent on these platforms, the type of content they consume, and how much it may negatively affect essential activities like sleep and exercise.
Will the future of social media look different?
In some cases, social media might be good. The advisory notes that adolescents often express feeling more accepted (58%), supported during tough times (67%), having a platform to showcase their creativity (71%), and feeling connected to their friends’ lives (80%).
Social media usage among youth has shown positive effects, the advisory reports, particularly in terms of forming and maintaining friendships online and developing social connections.
These online connections can be especially beneficial for marginalized youth, including racial, ethnic, and sexual and gender minorities, providing crucial social support that they may not get offline in their communities. The connections don’t only serve as friends, but help young people form their own identities outside of the limitations of a local community.
On various social media platforms, approximately 70% of adolescent girls of color indicate that they come across positive or identity-affirming content regarding race.
“It’s a lifeline for folks to receive information and to really see that they are not alone, and there are so many people like them,” Jessica Fish, who studies L.G.B.T.Q. youth and their families at the University of Maryland School of Public Health told the New York Times.
Murthy proposes a short list of prescriptives to help reduce the risks of social media. He suggests parents limit the time their child spends on social media and calls on policy makers to enhance safety standards and restrict access to create a safer digital environment for young people.
So far, those attempts have been controversial. On May 23, Chinese-owned TikTok announced they are suing the state of Montana after it banned the use of TikTok in the state. TikTok claims the ban violates freedom of speech laws.
Lastly, he urges technology companies to prioritize safety in their design processes, emphasizing the importance of establishing privacy measures and age requirements. However, despite these rules’ offering some level of protection for the mental health of young individuals, the advisory fails to address certain unresolved questions. Specifically, can we harness the potential of social media to enhance mental health and foster meaningful connections with others?
Social media bright spots
Meetup, a virtual space where individuals with shared interests can create or join groups based on their hobbies, professional affiliations, or personal passions, can benefit users’ mental health, according to therapists and a recent study.
“I’ve long recommended Meetup to clients,” said Matt Shaffer, LCSW in a Meetup press release. “It’s not only the immediate upside of gaining that positive social result, but more importantly, attending Meetup events helps people think and feel differently about the challenge of forming connections. Rather than it seeming like an insurmountable obstacle, they find that all is not lost and there are pathways through this challenge. My clients have been able to break their inertia and form social connections.”
BMOXI, a social media app targeting Gen Z girls, launched last month and offers a platform that combines mindfulness tools, teen-magazine blog posts and podcasts, and most importantly, a social forum. Choosing from a range of topics affecting teen girls, like school pressure and relationship issues, users can engage in the forum or privately with a trained mental health professional.
Unlike most social media apps, users have the option to remain completely anonymous – so young women can navigate the chaotic waters of adolescence with a network of people in the same stage of life and with as much privacy as they choose.
Ultimately, while the risks and negative impacts of social media on mental health cannot be ignored, it is important to explore strategies that leverage the potential benefits of these platforms while mitigating the associated risks, but if we can put human connection at the forefront of digital and technological advancements, the future of social media might look promising.