The US already regulates car seats and baby formulas, will it now continue with social networks?

The US public health director has warned that there is insufficient evidence to show that social networks are safe for young people and is calling on technology companies, parents and caregivers to take “immediate steps to protect children now”.

With nearly all young people using social media but not fully understanding its true impact on mental health, Dr. Vivek Murthy calls on tech companies to share data, increase their transparency and prioritize the health and safety of users when designing their products.

“I recognize that tech companies have taken steps to try to make their platforms healthier and more secure, but it just isn’t enough,” Murthy told The Associated Press in an interview. “Just look at the age requirements: the networks themselves have said that 13 is the age at which people can start using their platforms. However, 40% of children between the ages of 8 and 12 are on social networks. How does that happen if you are really enforcing your policies?

To comply with US federal regulation, social media companies already prohibit children under the age of 13 from registering on their platforms, but children have been shown to easily circumvent the bans, with and without parental consent.

Other measures that social networks have taken to address concerns about children’s mental health are also easily circumvented. For example, TikTok recently introduced a default time limit of 60 minutes for users under 18, but once the limit is reached, minors can simply enter a passcode to continue using the platform.

It’s not that companies are unaware of the damage their platforms cause. Meta, for example, studied the effects of Instagram on the mental health of adolescents years ago and discovered that the group pressure generated by the application -focused on the visual- generated mental health and body image problems. In some cases, it caused eating disorders and suicidal thoughts in adolescents, especially women. An internal study cited that 13.5% of adolescent girls said Instagram aggravates suicidal thoughts and 17% said it worsens eating disorders.

The investigation was revealed in 2021 by Frances Haugen, who reported misconduct at her place of employment to the authorities. Back then, Meta tried to downplay its platform’s harmful effects on teens, but it suspended work on a kids’ version of Instagram, which the company says is primarily aimed at 10- to 12-year-olds.

“The bottom line is that we don’t have enough evidence to conclude that social media is, in fact, safe enough for our children. This is very important for parents to know,” adds Murthy, who has been traveling across the United States to speak with parents and youth about the youth mental health crisis. “The most common question I get from parents is whether social media is safe for their kids.”

United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on February 8, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on February 8, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington.Susan Walsh/AP

In a report released Tuesday, Murthy wrote that lawmakers need to address the harms of social media in the same way they regulate things like car seats and baby formula, medicines and other products used by children. He argues that parents—let alone children—simply can’t do it all.

“We are asking parents to handle a rapidly evolving technology that is fundamentally changing the way their children think about themselves, how they build friendships, how they experience the world and, by the way, technology that previous generations never had. to drive,” says Murthy. “And we’re putting all of that on the shoulders of parents, which is just not fair.”

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Although Murthy admits that more research is needed, he says there is already a lot of evidence that social media can have a “profound risk of harm” to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.

A critical factor is brain development in children. Adults can suffer the deleterious effects of social media, but children and adolescents are at a “fundamentally different stage of brain development, where brain pathways, their social relationships, their self-esteem and identity are all developing,” Murthy says. . “And in this case, they’re even more likely to be influenced by social cues, social pressure and social comparison, and those three things exist in overwhelming abundance on social media.”

In fact, according to a study cited in the Surgeon’s Report, frequent use of social media may be associated with “distinct changes” in the developing brain and may increase sensitivity to social rewards and punishments.

The mental health of children and adolescents could have profound effects depending on how and how often they use social media, as well as the extreme, inappropriate and harmful content they see.

And research shows that they are using them a lot. Up to 95% of 13- to 17-year-olds say they use a social media platform, and more than a third say they use social media “almost constantly,” according to the Washington-based Pew Research Center. .

A systematic review of 42 studies found a “persistent relationship between social media use and poor sleep quality, reduced sleep duration, sleep difficulties, and depression among young people.” On a typical weekday, nearly one in three teens report using screen media until midnight or later.

What they see on social media is also important. From the bombardment of unrealistic body images to the culture of “hypercomparison” to bullying, hate and abuse, Murthy says he is concerned that the effects on the mental health of young people are being reflected in “statistics mental health concerns that we are seeing in our country, which tell us that depression, anxiety, suicide and loneliness are increasing.

The report led by Murthy doesn’t tell young people to stop using social media altogether, as it also has benefits. Teenagers can find a community there and have a space to express themselves. LGBTQ+ youth, in particular, have been shown to benefit from social media by connecting with peers, developing an identity, and finding social support.

“It may not be feasible for every family to prevent their child from using social media,” says Murthy, who notes that these platforms can also have benefits. “But it can be really helpful to draw boundaries around social media use in your child’s life, so that there are times and spaces that are protected, that are technology-free,” she adds.

Murthy has two children, ages 5 and 6, but like many parents, he’s already thinking about his future on social media.

“For our children we are planning to delay their use of social networks until after middle school,” he says, referring to grades six through eight. “It’s not going to be easy, but we hope to find other parents and families we can partner with to make this a little easier, because we know that there is strength in unity and sometimes making changes on your own is hard.”

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