Editorial: Social media’s grip on American teens is a big problem. Dr. Vivek Murthy has smart answers

Tribune Content Agency

The age of “screenagers” has been upon us for some time now. Parents of teens know it well.

How many times, Mom and Dad, have you smoldered at the sight of your adolescent mesmerized by their smartphone at the dinner table, or at a restaurant, or during a visit to Grandma and Grandpa’s place? You can admonish them with quips such as “Your brain is melting!” but you’ll likely get a huffy grunt or a long dose of side-eye.

Well, Mom and Dad, there’s someone out there who feels your pain. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.

This week, Murthy released an advisory on the pros and cons of social media and its impact on the mental health of America’s adolescents — along with concrete steps that policymakers and parents can take to minimize the harms of too much screen time.

Past surgeons general have issued advisories and reports that have led to a healthier, smarter America. In 1964, Surgeon General Luther Terry issued a landmark report that linked smoking to lung cancer and put the country on the path toward dramatically diminishing its love affair with cigarettes. In the 1980s, C. Everett Koop tore down misconceptions about HIV and AIDS, redefining the disease as chronic but preventable and spelling out common sense measures such as using condoms for safer sex. Murthy’s “Social Media and Youth Mental Health” report belongs on the same shelf.

His work should be mandatory reading for legislators, researchers, parents and yes, teenagers themselves. It stresses the pervasiveness of social media within the adolescent world, noting that up to 95% of teens ages 13 to 17 report using a social media platform. An even more disturbing statistic: nearly 40% of children between 8 and 12 use social media.

Murthy doesn’t portray social media as some terrible toxin that must be subdued. In fact, he stresses its benefits as a conduit for connection with peers and friends who share interests and identities. It also can provide an avenue for self-expression, and at times even illuminate. Teens report that social media keeps them tethered to what’s happening in their friends’ lives, and makes them feel as if they have people they can turn to during rough patches, Murthy says.

But as the report points out, the downside of social media’s impact on teens is very real and worrisome.

Social media platforms are built to maximize user engagement through a variety of tools, including “likes,” push notifications and algorithms that turn user data into recommendations on which content to view. We all get bombarded by social media’s tricks of the trade, of course, but Murthy’s concern is that the audience includes teens and their developing brains. Some studies have shown that “people with frequent and problematic social media use can experience changes in brain structure similar to changes seen in individuals with substance abuse or gambling addictions,” the report states.

Murthy cites other data that should raise red flags for parents. A survey done this year by the research group Common Sense found that a third of girls between 11 and 15 said they felt addicted to a social media platform. Nearly one in three teens report being on their screens until midnight or later. And, one survey of eighth and 10th graders found that they spent an average of 3.5 hours a day on social media, and that 1 in 7 teens participating in that survey were on social media for seven or more hours a day.

Murthy has a smart way of framing what needs to be done — the U.S. takes a safety-first approach when it comes to minimizing risk in the case of toys (toy safety standards), driving (air bags and seat belts) and pharmaceuticals (Food and Drug Administration scrutiny and approval before use). Why not adopt a safety-first approach to social media?

He lays out a series of common sense remedies that we wholeheartedly endorse. To being with, the people who run Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and other social media platforms must step up and take responsibility for the impact that their products and services have on teens and children, and must enable independent assessments of that impact. When they come up with a new product or service, they must prioritize the mental health and well-being of teens and children, regardless of what bite into profits that takes.

Lawmakers should establish and enforce age-appropriate health and safety standards that protect children from harmful content and limit the use of features aimed mostly at maximizing screen time and engagement. Murthy also urges policymakers to ensure that notoriously secretive tech companies share with researchers their data about the impact of their platforms on teens and children. He points out that there’s still much about the intersection of teens and social media that America doesn’t know about, so ensuring that researchers get the funding they need should be a legislative priority.

Crucially, Murthy has recommendations for parents and teens: Create a “family media plan” that establishes boundaries for social media use at home. Consider restricting screen time to no later than one hour before bedtime, and keeping meal times and social visits device-free. Have meaningful discussions with teens about how they spend their time online, who they are connecting with, and what their privacy settings are. That’s parenting 101, of course — stronger engagement with your children almost always leads to healthier, happier kids.

Murthy, who greatly impressed us when he came to talk to us on a visit to Chicago last winter, doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. But what’s laudable is that he recognizes the need for Americans to come to grips with the relationship between social media and adolescents — and to ensure that the well-being of children rises above every other priority.

We think parents will embrace his guidance. We hope lawmakers and tech company CEOs will as well.