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Five things to know about the US surgeon general’s warning on social media use by children

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Scrolling, posting, hoping to go viral — many children are absorbed by it nowadays. But is all that social media use harmful?

The US surgeon general’s office said Tuesday it might be — and it’s time to take action to protect those young minds glued to their flickering screens.

Here are five things to know about the surgeon general’s announcement:

The surgeon general says there is growing evidence that social media is harmful for young people

US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said the most common question parents ask him is whether social media is safe for their children. “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,” Murthy said in a statement.


There are “ample indicators” that social media can have “a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents,” according to a Surgeon General’s Advisory on Social Media and Youth Mental Health released by Murthy Tuesday.

Social media may be harmful in multiple ways

The officials said there is more than one type of problem caused by social media.

“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,” Murthy said.

Social media use by youth is extremely high

“Nearly universal” is how the advisory describes social media use by youth.

Up to 95 percent of youth age 13 to 17 report using social media, with more than a third saying they use it almost constantly. And nearly 40 percent of children 8 to 12 report using social media even though they are below the commonly required minimum age of 13 for social media platforms in the United States, the advisory said.


“Despite this widespread use among children and adolescents, robust independent safety analyses on the impact of social media on youth have not yet been conducted,” the advisory said.

Officials are prescribing a multipronged approach to the problem

“Our children and adolescents don’t have the luxury of waiting years until we know the full extent of social media’s impact. Their childhoods and development are happening now,” the advisory said.

The advisory contained a host of recommendations aimed at policymakers, tech companies, researchers, and families. The recommendations called for everything from policymakers “taking steps to strengthen safety standards” to children turning off devices an hour before bed every night.

“Now is the time to act swiftly and decisively to protect children and adolescents from risk of harm,” the advisory said.

Here’s what families can do

Here are some of the things the advisory recommended for parents and children.

The advisory recommended that parents take actions such as creating a family media plan, setting up tech-free zones, and encouraging their children to have “unstructured and offline connections with others.” It also called for parents to teach kids about responsible online behavior, to model that behavior, to report problematic content and activity, and to team up with other parents to create common norms and practices.

The surgeon general advised children to develop protective strategies such as tracking their amount of online time, reach out for help if they or someone they know needs it, “nurture in-person relationships,” be cautious about what they share, refuse to participate in harassment or abuse, and report it if they experience it.


“Today’s children and teens do not know a world without digital technology, but the digital world wasn’t built with children’s healthy mental development in mind,” Dr. Sandy Chung, president of the American Association of Pediatrics, said in the statement. “We need an approach to help children both on and offline that meets each child where they are while also working to make the digital spaces they inhabit safer and healthier.”

Shannon Larson of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Martin Finucane can be reached at