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A new report shows how social media use puts our kids and teens at risk

The surgeon general is encouraging tech companies to create better tools to protect teenagers. But is it enough?

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned in a new report that social media use among kids and teens is a significant mental health risk and could be a major contributor to higher levels of depression and anxiety.

I sat down with Dr. Harold Koplewicz, the president and medical director of the Child Mind Institute, to discuss the report’s alarming findings.

I sat down with Dr. Harold Koplewicz, the president and medical director of the Child Mind Institute, to discuss the report’s alarming findings.

“It is very serious, and we should really applaud the surgeon general,” Koplewicz said. “He is basically saying this is unsafe, or it doesn’t show safety. Until it shows safety, you have to beware.”

The report arrives amid growing efforts by lawmakers to patrol the social media activity of young people. In April, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act, which would set the minimum age of social media users at 13.

The surgeon general is also encouraging tech companies to create better tools to protect teenagers and ease up on features that entice kids to stay online longer.

Some still fear those recommendations are not enough. Jen Golbeck, a professor at the University of Maryland who researches social media and privacy, says social media companies are simply not willing to take the steps outlined in the report.  

“Social media likes to say that they’re going to self-regulate, that they’re going to look as an industry at what’s going on,” Golbeck said. “But the fact is that they don’t do anything to make things better unless they’re really pushed very hard. There’s not an incentive for self-regulation because there’s a lot of money to be made.”

The report also outlines the harmful effects of social media on teenage girls, who are frequently exposed to content that perpetuates body dysmorphia and low self-esteem.

“[Teen girls] get pushed a lot of content that feeds things like eating disorders and body image issues, because society is bombarding you with that kind of message as an adolescent girl,” Golbeck said. “Social media knows that you’re going to engage with that, because those are the kind of messages you’re thinking about.”

Koplewicz also emphasized the differences between how girls and boys engage with social media.

“Girls do more social media than boys. Girls are more prone to anxiety and depression than boys are,” said Koplewicz. “And we have to remember that some of the dangers of it are that the cyberbullying is particularly sensitive.”

So how can we fix it?

Dr. Jenny Radesky, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan, said parents should start by talking to their kids directly about how social media impacts their everyday lives.

“If we are talking about this only through a very risk or fear-based framework, we might be making families feel less efficacious,” Radesky said. “Talk to your child about it — is this a problem for your child? Or is your child managing it in a pretty adaptive way?”

Koplewicz agreed.

“Parents have to be really aware, because [kids’] brains are developing,” Koplewicz said. “When they spend a lot of time on social media, they spend less time sleeping, they spend less time doing real life interactions, and they also spend less time doing physical activity. And those three things are essential for brain development.”

He also encouraged parents to praise their children for seeking alternatives to social media — rather than chastising them when they use it.

“I think if you want kids to do something, you catch them being good,” Koplewicz said. “You praise them for, ‘That was a great, funny story, I’m so glad you shared it with me.’ Or, ‘I’m having so much fun with you on this walk.’ Instead of criticizing them for constantly looking at their phone.”

This is an adapted excerpt from the May 24 episode of “The 11th Hour.”