On Tuesday, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released a public advisory about the hazardous potential of social media on youth mental health. I was pleased to see that it’s a balanced summary of what we know and a clear explanation of the gaps in the evidence and not just a typical anti-social-media screed. The report explains that social media has some benefits, like social connection, particularly for marginalized groups, but the risks may outweigh the rewards, depending on the individual kid and propensities toward maladies like depression, anxiety, neurosis, and eating disorders.
I’ve long been convinced by the data, which the surgeon general included, that there are certain ages when kids are especially vulnerable to negative outcomes from social media use. As his public advisory notes, “Adolescent social media use is predictive of a subsequent decrease in life satisfaction for certain developmental stages including for girls 11 to 13 years old and boys 14 to 15 years old.” Despite the fact that the most prominent social media platforms have rules prohibiting kids under 13 from creating accounts, “38 percent of tweens have used social media (up from 31 percent in 2019), and nearly one in five (18 percent) now say they use social media ‘every day,’” according to a 2021 report from Common Sense Media.
Because I’ve been aware of this information for a while, I want to keep my daughters, who are 10 and 6, off social media until high school, if I can help it. (Yes, I can hear the collective “Good luck” and feel the eye roll from all of you middle school parents out there. And while Dr. Murthy calls on tech companies to create safer environments for kids and for politicians to strengthen protections, I’m not optimistic this is happening any time soon.) Part of my strategy is that despite my fifth grader’s frequent entreaties, my husband and I have refused to buy her a smartphone.
Instead, for her most recent birthday, we got her a smartwatch, which allows her to text us if she plans to go to a friend’s house after school and lets us reach her in an emergency. It also allows her to be on group chats with her friends, so she’s not a total pariah. I see little harm in a daily flurry of kitten GIFs. Crucially, though, she can’t download apps, including ones for social media, without our permission.