Surgeon General: Social Media Poses a ‘Profound Risk’ to Mental Health of Minors
On Tuesday, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an extensive report warning that social media use poses a “profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.” The advisory marks the first time that the nation’s top health official has formally addressed the issue, possibly signaling a watershed moment for a growing movement of parents, researchers, clinicians, and other health care experts who say that social media addiction is devastating the mental and emotional health of America’s youth.
The 19-page advisory points to startling statistics showing that virtually every American adolescent (ages 13-17) reports using a social media platform, with fully one-third saying they use social media “almost constantly.” In addition, almost 40% of children aged 8-12 also use social media despite 13 being the widespread minimum age required to access most platforms.
With this ubiquitous use of social media has come a parallel explosion in poor health outcomes for minors. As written extensively about by psychologist Jean Twenge, there is a clear correlation between the widespread adoption of smartphones and social media apps around 2010 and an increase in anxiety, depression, and loneliness as well as “emergency room visits for self-harm, for suicide attempts and completed suicides.” In addition, Twenge noted that 2010 is also around the period that the amount of time teens spent socializing in-person with their friends and the amount of sleep they got began to nosedive significantly.
But the consequences of social media addiction reach far beyond these issues, as clinical psychologist Dr. Jennifer Bauwens argues.
“The surgeon general’s recommendation for family mealtimes and in-person gatherings that promote social bonds and conversation [is] in itself is a real recognition of how much family breakdown we are dealing with in our nation,” she told The Washington Stand. “The fact that we have to have the surgeon general recommend that we have conversation with our family members is a sad commentary but also an admission that a lot of what we are dealing with is at a very basic level.”
Bauwens, who serves as director of the Center for Family Studies at Family Research Council, further argued that social media addiction goes straight to the heart of the identity crisis occurring among American youth.
“This whole issue in a broad sense speaks to the identity crisis that we have,” she observed. “We have a generation where the feedback that they get for their identity is through social media, and through likes, and through the image that they portray to others. It’s a false identity. It’s not authentic, and I think it’s one of the reasons why we do hear that this is a generation that wants authenticity — yet in reality, there’s a false identity that’s portrayed through social media.”
“There’s also a false sense of connection that is facilitated through social media,” she continued. “I think social media has lent itself to this identity crisis which in turn has made way for the transgender identity, because that’s also a false identity. So you have a whole generation that’s used to dealing with false personas.”
Bauwens went on to point out how the surgeon general’s report fails to make the connection between the facilitation of gender ideology through social media and the spike in negative mental health outcomes.
“In the surgeon general report, they’re making the connection that social media is a driver of depression and anxiety. They’re arguing that [on the one hand], yet there’s no connection to … the trans issue. [It’s clear that] that social media is harming young people [by] promoting a false identity and saying all their problems will be solved by this false identity. Yet these are the same people showing up in the emergency room and saying that they’re suicidal and are self-harming, and they’re going to [further] self-harm through transgender ‘medicine.’ … There’s this complete and profound disconnection that social media can be the cause of this.”
Bauwens also highlighted how issues related to attachment disorders stem from social media addiction.
“I do know from clinical [experience] and research that I’ve done in the past that attachment issues can have some of the most harmful results for the person and society,” she told TWS. “So many of the things that we try to correct through policy and programs are really at their root a problem with attachment. When somebody has a severe attachment disorder, they have problems holding jobs, they are often in trouble with the law, they have an inability to sustain a healthy relationship if that attachment isn’t healed.”
“At a lower level,” Bauwens continued, “what we’re seeing with social media is the inability to connect and bond with people in person and to have a real relationship and to be able to resolve issues. That’s not the same as an attachment disorder, but I think you’ll see features of attachment disorders play out in the years to come, particularly with a generation that has used social media as a tool for relationships.”
She concluded by warning against the modern tendency to substitute social media interactions for in-person human connection.
“There’s a scripture that says, ‘In the end times, the love of many will grow cold.’ You have to wonder what would the conditions be so that people feel like their love for others has grown cold? I think we are living in that time where it feels like people are cold to one another. I think that social media has had that kind of effect on people because you have this artificial connection, and people say things on social media that they would never communicate in person. I think even in that, you have a very superficial type of relationship or engagement with people … We’ve gotten conditioned to a cold type of relationship with others. It’s not all bad, but there’s enough evidence here to show that there is a relationship between how much time you’re spending ingesting this material and this discourse that’s happening on these platforms and your mental wellbeing.”
Dan Hart is senior editor at The Washington Stand.