Editor's Note: Below is a complimentary insight from our world renowned demographer Neil Howe.
- Social media poses a “profound risk of harm” to kids and teens, according to a new Surgeon General advisory. The advisory urges parents to set limits and for the government to create new health and safety standards. (MSNBC)
- Neil Howe: This is not the first time that U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has warned the public about the effects on social media on children’s mental health. An earlier advisory in 2021 (see “New Public Health Advisory on Teen Mental Health”) called on tech companies to make sure that their products are safe for kids and teens and cited research linking social media use to anxiety and depression.
- The message of his latest advisory is much more pointed. “[There] are ample indicators that social media can…have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents,” it reads. “We must…urgently take action to create safe and healthy digital environments.”
- Murthy urges policymakers to create safety standards for social media similar to those we have for cars or medications. He also recommends that officials “pursue policies that further limit access…to social media for all children,” including implementing or strengthening age minimums.
- His call to action comes at a time when warnings about social media and youth mental health are coming from seemingly everywhere. It's a much-discussed topic among social scientists, the most vocal among them Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge. And it's one of the few things that Democratic and Republican lawmakers agree on.
- Policies similar to those Murthy recommends are increasingly being introduced in Congress. A bipartisan Senate bill announced at the end of April would ban children under age 13 from using social media, while those ages 13 to 17 would need permission from a parent or guardian to create an account. Social media companies would also be prohibited from using algorithms to recommend content to users under 18.
- Meanwhile, more states are implementing their own age minimums, including Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Ohio. The most comprehensive legislation is Utah’s Social Media Regulation Act, which prohibits minors from using social media between the hours of 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. (see “The Push for a Kid-Friendly Internet”) and requires them to receive parental consent to sign up for any social media platform. It also forbids social media apps from adding features that make their platforms more addictive and allows minors to receive up to $2,500 if their use of social media directly leads to financial, physical, or emotional damages.
- This advisory undoubtedly will be used to buttress the legal arguments behind the new policies targeting social media companies. When Montana became the first state to ban TikTok last month, it was on the grounds of protecting national security, not kids’ mental health. TikTok immediately filed a lawsuit arguing that this ban amounts to illegal suppression of free speech. IMO, it won’t be surprising if Montana officials pivot and begin arguing that the state is trying to prevent a public health crisis.