Please note that this is an Archived article and may contain content that is out of date. The use of she/her/hers pronouns in some articles is not intended to be exclusionary. Eating disorders can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights.

By Quinn Nystrom, MS

Did you see the Surgeon General’s recent report on the dangers of youth going on social media too early? It states that up to 95% of youth ages 13-17 report using a social media platform, and nearly 40% of children ages 8-12 use social media.

“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. “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.”

Some of the key findings in recent research:

1. Adolescent social media use predicts a subsequent decrease in life satisfaction for certain developmental stages, including for girls 11-13 years old and boys 14-15 years old.

2. Adolescents who spend more than three hours per day on social media face double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes, including symptoms of depression and anxiety.

3. In U.S. colleges, social media rollout was associated with increased depression and anxiety.

4. A study in college-aged youth found that limiting social media use to 30 minutes daily over three weeks significantly improved depression severity.

5. A study conducted among 14-year-olds found that greater social media use predicted poor sleep, online harassment, poor body image, low self-esteem, and high depressive symptom scores, with a more significant association for girls than boys.

My husband and I have a 14-year-old, and we talk weekly about her use of social media. Do the pros outweigh the cons? She tells us all of her friends have smartphones and that if we take the phone away, it will hinder her social life. She also tells us that she’s found online communities that have helped her cope with things she’s struggled with (which she may not find in our small town). We work as parents to figure out the right thing to do, but we don’t want her accessing something that can be a detriment to her mental health. So how do we best balance this?

The report gives action items that we, as parents, can do:

1. Create a family media plan. When our daughter got her smartphone, we had her sign a family agreement of the rules that she would need to follow. Examples: the amount of daily time on the phone, what time social media would be turned off (we used the Verizon family app), expectations of no use of phones at mealtime, what time her phone would be turned in at night, etc.

2. Create tech-free zones and encourage children to foster in-person friendships. We want our daughter to foster healthy relationships instead of forming ones with strangers online. We’ve encouraged her when she has friends over to do tech-free time and instead go on a walk, make art, cook a new recipe, or go on a picnic.

3. Model responsible social media behavior. I’ve always believed the old saying, “The fish rots from the head down.” If my husband and I are constantly on our phones at the dinner table, during family movie night, and being distracted when our kids try to talk to us, we are responsible for setting a bad example. It’s something he and I have to be very conscious of.

4. Teach kids about technology and empower them to be responsible online participants at the appropriate age. We’ve had many challenging conversations with our teen that our parents never needed to have with us (because we were pre-cell phones and social media!). As parents, we can’t assume that our children are being fully educated about social media and smartphone literacy at school; we need to have those honest conversations at home.

5. Report cyberbullying and online abuse and exploitation. This comes down to educating our teens and ourselves and making sure we’re monitoring her usage, and leaving lines of communication open.

6. Work with other parents to help establish shared norms and practices and to support programs and policies around healthy social media use.

What adolescents can do:

1. Reach out for help.

2. Create boundaries to help balance online and offline activities.

3. Develop protective strategies and healthy practices.

4. Be cautious about what you share.

5. Protect yourself and others.

-Don’t keep online harassment or abuse a secret.

-Don’t take part in online harassment or abuse.

For many of us, this is a new world with smartphones and social media, with many kids starting as early as five or six. As a country, we must continue to research this topic, knowing that our youth and adults have a mental health crisis. We all have a part to play in educating ourselves and helping our children create healthy boundaries to protect themselves.

To read the Surgeon General’s full advisory, click here.