US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy says he believes 13 is too young for children to be on social media platforms, because although sites allow children of that age to join, kids are still “developing their identity.”
Meta, Twitter, and a host of other social media giants currently allow 13-year-olds to join their platforms.
“I, personally, based on the data I’ve seen, believe that 13 is too early … It’s 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,” Murthy said on “CNN Newsroom.”
The number of teenagers on social media has sparked alarm among medical professionals, who point to a growing body of research about the harm such platforms can cause adolescents.
Murthy acknowledged the difficulties of keeping children off these platforms given their popularity, but suggested parents can find success by presenting a united front.
“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,” he told CNN.
Teenagers especially at risk
New research suggests habitually checking social media can alter the brain chemistry of adolescents.
According to a study published this month in JAMA Pediatrics, students who checked social media more regularly displayed greater neural sensitivity in certain parts of their brains, making their brains more sensitive to social consequences over time.
Psychiatrists like Dr. Adriana Stacey have pointed to this phenomenon for years. Stacey, who works primarily with teenagers and college students, previously told CNN using social media releases a “dopamine dump” in the brain.
“When we do things that are addictive like use cocaine or use smartphones, our brains release a lot of dopamine at once. It tells our brains to keep using that,” she said. “For teenagers in particular, this part of their brain is actually hyperactive compared to adults. They can’t get motivated to do anything else.”
Recent studies demonstrate other ways excessive screen time can impact brain development. In young children, for example, excessive screen time was significantly associated with poorer emerging literacy skills and ability to use expressive language.
Lawmakers are paying attention
Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, who recently published an op-ed in the Bulwark about loneliness and mental health, echoed the surgeon general’s concerns about social media. “We have lost something as a society, as so much of our life has turned into screen-to-screen communication, it just doesn’t give you the same sense of value and the same sense of satisfaction as talking to somebody or seeing someone,” Murphy told CNN in an interview alongside Murthy.
For both Murphy and Murthy, the issue of social media addiction is personal. Both men are fathers – Murphy to teenagers and Murthy to young children. “It’s not coincidental that Dr. Murthy and I are probably talking more about this issue of loneliness more than others in public life,” Murphy told CNN. “I look at this through the prism of my 14-year-old and my 11-year-old.”
As a country, Murphy explained, the U.S. is not powerless in the face of Big Tech. Lawmakers could make different decisions about limiting young kids from social media and incentivizing companies to make algorithms less addictive.
The surgeon general similarly addressed addictive algorithms, explaining pitting adolescents against Big Tech is “just not a fair fight.” He told CNN, “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. 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.”
Despite the hurdles facing parents and kids, Murphy struck a note of optimism about the future of social media.
“None of this is out of our control. When we had dangerous vehicles on the road, we passed laws to make those vehicles less dangerous,” he told CNN. “We should make decisions to make [social media] a healthier experience that would make kids feel better about themselves and less alone.”