Me, thinking to myself last week…“Wow – the U.S. Surgeon General just released an advisory on social media and youth mental health! That’s a big deal…and definitely something we have to cover on Ask Trish.”
Hi there, and welcome back to Ask Trish! (Can you believe it’s the last Ask Trish of May? #whereisthetimegoingahhhh)
Last week was a big deal in the Internet safety world – last Tuesday, the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, released an advisory on social media and youth mental health *insert sound of glass shattering. For those of you thinking, So what? or, What does that really mean?, here’s a little context: as the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Murthy is, in effect, the US government’s spokesperson on all things public health. (You may have seen the Surgeon General’s warning labels on products that can be unsafe or unhealthy, like tobacco and alcohol.) In his role, Dr. Murthy has highlighted a number of health issues as deeply important, among them loneliness and youth mental health…and when he does, it’s pretty a big deal! It basically means that the US government thinks that that health issue is at least a concern, if not a serious problem or something to watch. And that’s why, when, last week, Dr. Murthy chose to highlight youth mental health and social media as one of his “current priorities,” it got a lot of attention! It was, at the very least, a very important moment in the Internet safety world.
Too often, these types of moments – and the information shared in these advisories – reach parents, doctors, and educators (that is, a lot of adults), but not youth. And that’s a shame because, as Dr. Murthy highlighted, we all – youth included – have a role to play in taking action to safeguard our mental health in the digital world. That’s why, this week, I’ve decided to shine a light on the advisory, offering y’all a brief summary of what Dr. Murthy said and what he recommends us young people do to tackle negativity or other challenges we may face online.
With that said, let’s get into it:
In the advisory, the U.S. Surgeon General lays out some of the latest research and insights on social media and youth mental health. The Surgeon General notes that this research – and the topic, more broadly – has perhaps never been more relevant, given the widespread use of social media: 95% of teenagers use social media, and “even 40% of children aged 8-12 [are] on social media.” The Surgeon General notes that when it comes to social media and youth mental health, it’s not all bad – noting, for instance, that social media is an important “source of connection for youth who are often marginalized, such as the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities.” Why? Social media is a space where they can authentically express who they are – in a world in which such spaces are often lacking. Social media can also help these youth feel accepted; seeing other young people like them can be affirming and make them feel more comfortable and confident in their identities. For some youth, social media is even the place where they first learn about these identities; I have a friend, for instance, who first saw the word “lesbian” on social media – an identity with which she now identifies.
So, there’s definitely some good. With that said, as the Surgeon General notes, there is “increasingly” evidence to be seriously concerned about the way social media affects youth mental health. When asked about social media and their body image, “46% of adolescents aged 13-17 said social media makes them feel worse.” That’s really scary – and very consistent with the sentiments I often hear many of you express. Also scary was the finding that youth who spend more than 3 hours a day on social media are 2x more likely to be at risk of mental health challenges like depression and anxiety. That, in and of itself, is very concerning…but it only looks worse when you realize that teenagers spend about 3.5 hours a day on social media. (All that time scrolling, swiping, clicking, and posting adds up…) Indeed, many youth report feeling addicted to social media. Finally, there’s a stat that, as anti-cyberbullying advocate, definitely made me take notice: a recent study finds that 64% (nearly ⅔) of adolescents “are ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ exposed to hate-based content.” It goes without saying that that is not okay, especially when we know that so much of that content attacks individuals’ identities and backgrounds.
So…what to do? Well, the report lays out a number of paths forward for the many stakeholders in the social media and mental health space. For youth, the recommendations include things I’ve been suggesting for nearly 2 years now via Ask Trish…but a little recap – and shining a light on new suggestions – never hurts! Here’s what Dr. Murthy says you should do to safeguard your mental health in the digital age:
- If social media is negatively affecting your mental health, get the help you need. That might mean speaking to a friend or adult, or it might mean calling 988, the US’s crisis lifeline.
- Proactively create boundaries between your offline and online spaces. If you’re hanging out with a friend, don’t spend the entire time on your phone! Be intentional – rather than passive – about your device use.
- Think before you type! If you know anything about me/my background, you know that this is a tip I wholeheartedly endorse. Think carefully about what you share online and to whom. That’s personal information about you that may be public can be stored permanently.
- Be an Upstander to cyberbullying. Again, if you know me, you know how important I think this tip is. If you see someone being subject to online hate and harassment, don’t be a bystander – be an Upstander. If it’s safe to do so, intervene, encouraging the bully to stop; if you don’t feel comfortable getting involved, you can always report the bullying and privately support the victim.
And…that’s it for this week! As always, thank you all so much for reading along. I hope you found this a really valuable, insightful look at a very important moment in the Internet safety world. If/when future advisors are released – or as new developments emerge – I’ll be sure to keep y’all in the loop. In return, all I ask is that you stay in touch! Maybe you’re loving this Ask Trish content…or maybe there’s another topic on your mind that you’d like to dig into. Either way, I’d love to hear how you’re feeling and thinking about the Internet. Share any questions or notes you have here (and your topic just might be featured in an upcoming TikTok/blog post!). On, and don’t forget to engage with Ask Trish content when you see it on social media – like and share away! Thanks a ton in advance for the support.
Wishing you a great end to May,