Advisory on Social Media and Youth Mental Health: Balancing Benefits and Risks

Advisory on Social Media and Youth Mental Health: Balancing Benefits and Risks

It’s nothing new to parents or educators that there are issues needing to be addressed regarding kids’ use of social media. Even among adults, social media has been a subject of concern related to mental health, screen addiction, and the alienation it can bring. This is despite the fact that humankind has never been more connected online.

For younger children just learning about social media, right up through the teen years, developing minds are especially susceptible to potential harm.  So, on May 21, 2024, United States Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, issued an urgent advisory highlighting the complex relationship between social media use and youth mental health. This advisory underscores the need for immediate national awareness and action due to the nearly universal use of social media among young people, and the significant public health implications it entails.

However, it also looks at the potential benefits and makes recommendations with a balanced approach.  Here is a summary of the advisory:

Overview: Social Media Usage Among Youth

Social media usage among youth is pervasive, with up to 95% of adolescents aged 13-17 using platforms, and over a third reporting near-constant use. Even younger children, aged 8-12, show a high engagement rate, despite age restrictions on many platforms. This widespread use raises concerns about its impacts on mental health, though comprehensive independent safety analyses remain scarce.

Dual Impacts of Social Media

The advisory notes that social media can both benefit and harm youth, influenced by various factors such as usage time, content type, and the nature of social interactions online. It acknowledges that adolescents are in a critical phase of brain development, making them particularly sensitive to social pressures and online interactions.

Potential Benefits

Social media offers numerous benefits, such as fostering connections, providing a sense of community, and offering platforms for self-expression. It can be especially supportive for marginalized groups, including racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities. Many adolescents report feeling more accepted and supported through online interactions, and digital mental health interventions show promise in promoting help-seeking behaviors.

Potential Harms

Conversely, excessive social media use is linked to several negative outcomes. Studies indicate that adolescents spending more than three hours per day on social media are at a higher risk of depression and anxiety. Other risks include cyberbullying, sleep disturbances, and body image issues. Adolescents are also vulnerable to harmful content, such as depictions of self-harm and suicide, which can normalize these behaviors.

Content Exposure and Excessive Use

Harmful content exposure and problematic use patterns are significant concerns. Inappropriate and harmful content is easily accessible, and features designed to maximize user engagement can lead to excessive use, resembling addictive behaviors. This overuse can disrupt essential activities like sleep and physical activity, further impacting mental health.

Evidence Gaps and Need for Research

Despite the clear indicators of potential harm, substantial gaps in evidence remain. Current research is primarily correlational and lacks access to critical data from technology companies. More comprehensive studies are necessary to understand the full scope of social media’s impact and to develop evidence-based interventions.

Recommendations for Action

The advisory outlines actionable steps for various stakeholders, emphasizing the urgent need for a multi-faceted approach to mitigate the risks associated with social media use among children and adolescents.


Playing a crucial role in shaping the digital environment to safeguard youth mental health, key actions for policy makers include:

Enforcing Age-Appropriate Design Standards: Policies should ensure that social media platforms are designed with age-appropriate features that protect younger users. This includes implementing default privacy settings, limiting data collection, preventing exploitation, and restricting exposure to potentially harmful content.

Enhancing Transparency Requirements: Legislation should mandate technology companies to disclose how their algorithms operate, particularly how content is recommended and how user data is collected and utilized. Increased transparency can help identify and mitigate the negative impacts of social media.

Regulating Engagement Features: Policies should address features that promote excessive use, such as autoplay videos, infinite scrolling, and push notifications. These features can be designed to minimize addictive behaviors and encourage healthier usage patterns.

Technology Companies

Tech companies have a responsibility to create safer online environments for young users. They can contribute by:

Prioritizing Safety and Well-Being: Companies should integrate safety features into the core design of their platforms. This includes using algorithms that filter out harmful content, providing tools for users to report abuse, and creating systems to prevent cyberbullying.

Sharing Data for Research: To facilitate a better understanding of social media’s impact, tech companies should collaborate with independent researchers by sharing anonymized data. This transparency can help in developing evidence-based strategies to enhance user safety.

Implementing Age Verification: Strengthening age verification processes can ensure that children under the age limits are not exposed to inappropriate content. This can be achieved through more robust identification methods and regular audits.

Parents and Caregivers

On the frontline of managing children’s social media use, effective strategies for parents and caregivers include:

Fostering Open Communication: Encouraging an ongoing dialogue about social media can help children feel comfortable discussing their online experiences. Parents should listen to their children’s concerns and provide guidance on how to navigate digital interactions safely.

Modeling Healthy Behaviors: Parents can set a positive example by demonstrating balanced social media use. This includes setting aside device-free times, especially during family interactions, and prioritizing face-to-face communication.

Setting Boundaries: Establishing clear rules about the amount of time spent on social media and the type of content that can be accessed is crucial. Using parental control tools to monitor and limit social media use can help enforce these boundaries.


Educating young people about safe social media practices empowers them to use digital platforms responsibly. This includes:

Understanding Risks and Benefits: Youth should be aware of both the positive and negative aspects of social media. Education programs can teach them about the potential mental health impacts and how to seek help if needed.

Practicing Digital Literacy: Encouraging critical thinking about the content they consume, and share can help youth make informed decisions. They should learn to recognize misleading information and harmful content.

Maintaining Healthy Habits: Young people should be guided on how to balance online and offline activities. Promoting regular breaks from screens, engaging in physical activities, and prioritizing sleep are essential for maintaining mental well-being.


To address the gaps in current knowledge, researchers should focus on:

Exploring Mechanisms of Impact: Studies should investigate how specific features of social media platforms affect mental health. This includes understanding how social comparison, exposure to harmful content, and engagement patterns contribute to outcomes like anxiety and depression.

Developing Interventions: Researchers should work on creating and testing interventions that can mitigate the negative impacts of social media. This might involve digital literacy programs, mental health resources integrated within social media platforms, and tools to promote positive online behaviors.

Longitudinal Studies: Long-term studies tracking the same individuals over time can provide insights into how social media use affects mental health throughout different stages of adolescence and into adulthood.

Interestingly enough, but perhaps not related, schools who are banning cell phones in schools are also including restrictions on social media use. Is this because of the reported harm that social has on youth mental health?  Or, is it simply because of the obvious distraction that social media brings to cell phone use while in school.

The American Phycological Association has also issued their health advisory on social media use in adolescence.  They acknowledge the surgeon general’s advisory and have issued their own recommendations based on scientific evidence to date.

Final Words

The Surgeon General’s advisory calls for a coordinated effort among policymakers, technology companies, parents, youth, and researchers to create a safer digital landscape. By implementing these detailed recommendations, it is possible to protect the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents, ensuring that social media can be used as a tool for positive development rather than a source of harm.

Download the U.S. Surgeon General’s Youth Mental Health Social Media Advisory

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