The nation's top doctor says he believes social media is having a negative impact on the nation's youth and that 13 is too young to be using the popular services.
Most social media apps require users to be 13 years old before signing up. This is because the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) – signed into law in 1998 – prohibits websites from tracking information on children younger than 13 years old. It became law before the rise of social media.
"I, personally, based on the data I've seen, believe that 13 is too early," U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy told CNN. Thirteen, he said, is a time "where it's really important for us to be thoughtful about what's going into how they think about their own self-worth and their relationships, and the skewed and often distorted environment of social media often does a disservice to many of those children."
The concern about social media is bipartisan. In 2021, a bipartisan coalition of 44 state attorneys general wrote Facebook and urged it to cancel plans for "Instagram Kids," saying in a letter that the "use of social media can be detrimental to the health and well-being of children." Last year, a bipartisan coalition of eight attorneys general said they were investigating TikTok to determine if it was "promoting its social media platform" to children and teens "in a manner that causes or exacerbates physical and mental health harms."
Last month, researchers Brad Wilcox and Riley Peterson published a column in the Deseret News asserting "it's time to treat Big Tech like Big Tobacco." Since the introduction of the smartphone, they noted, the rate of depression among teen girls has "more than doubled," with "emergency room visits for self-inflicted injuries" nearly doubling. Meanwhile, "teen suicide among girls has risen to a 40-year high," they wrote.
"You have some of the best designers and product developers in the world who have designed these products to make sure people are maximizing the amount of time they spend on these platforms," Murthy said. "And if we tell a child, 'Use the force of your willpower to control how much time you're spending' – you're pitting a child against the world's greatest product designers, and that's just not a fair fight. And so that's why I think our kids need help. And what we need, which we don't have right now, is we need transparency from social media companies as to the impact that their platforms are having on kids in which kids are being adversely affected."
John Wyatt, a senior researcher at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge, England, compares social media to the addictive nature of heroin.
"It's almost like people are now giving away free heroin, to everybody," Wyatt told the Unbelievable? podcast. "And we've only just noticed that this might actually not be a good idea. And we're starting to see the consequences of people who've been using heroin."
Said Murthy, "If parents can band together and say, you know, as a group, we're not going to allow our kids to use social media until 16 or 17 or 18 or whatever age they choose, that's a much more effective strategy in making sure your kids don't get exposed to harm early."
Photo courtesy: Sara Kurfess/Unsplash
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.