For kids exploring social media, here are three steps the surgeon general wants parents to take
As a father of three teenage girls, one of my biggest parenting challenges has been navigating smartphones and social media. There has been almost no precedent for this, as our girls were born just as these new technologies were taking hold. My wife and I would often have long conversations late into the night discussing what we thought was the best approach. Even though our kids are just a few years apart in age, we found that our tolerance of social media had already shifted between our oldest and our youngest, as the technology was changing so quickly.
The truth is, we weren’t ever sure we had done the best job we could.
So when US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy came out with his advisory about social media and the mental health of this country’s youth a couple of weeks ago, I was interested to see what the approach would be. After all, we are used to hearing the surgeon general sound warnings about cigarettes and opioids. Would smartphones and social media be given that same level of dire warning?
I often think about social media less like tobacco and more like junk food. Unlike tobacco, we need food to survive, so we can’t cut it out altogether. But there is no doubt we can pick healthy food or junk food, and indulge in too much of it. The more I read the report, which runs about 20 pages, the more I felt a sense of unity and relief around a topic many of us – young and old, but maybe especially teens and their parents – have to deal with: the increasing amount of time we spend on our smartphones, often doing the digital equivalent of gorging on junk food.
As a parent, I found it refreshing to have someone – the person appointed by the President to be the nation’s doctor, no less – finally weigh in on what I and many others have been thinking and feeling: Something is not right, and the growing concerns are not being adequately addressed. The advisory confirmed that “increasingly, evidence is indicating there is reason to be concerned about the risk of harm social media use poses to children and adolescents.”
Murthy’s advisory lays bare some raw truths: Social media has not been proved safe, and in some cases, it can be harmful to our kids by exposing them to sexual, violent and hate-based content, as well as content that perpetuates body dissatisfaction or allows bullying. And parents – like him and like me – have been left bearing the sole responsibility for keeping kids safe, with too little support and too few tools to manage the complex situation.
Particularly bewildering to me have been the algorithms that allow kids to be exposed to such damaging content in the first place and the lack of control over both the type and the amount of content our kids are absorbing. A 2022 survey of American teenagers from the Pew Research Center found that 95% of teens have access to a smartphone, and nearly half of teens (46%) say they use the internet “almost constantly” – all of which adds up to a lot of time spent (and content consumed) on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat.
For those of you who listen to the “Chasing Life” podcast, you’ll know we devoted last season entirely to this very important topic, trying to peel back some of the layers surrounding our dependence on our devices. I spent a lot of time having thorough conversations with my own girls about the topic, and it was illuminating for all of us. The surgeon general told me he was touched by those conversations, and it was one of the reasons he wanted to join me on the podcast this week, which we turned into a special episode of “Chasing Life.”
Three steps parents can take
“This technology is already being used by 95% of kids, right. And I don’t think that it’s realistic to put the genie back in the bottle here or to say somehow, nobody should be using social media. That’s not the goal here,” Murthy said.
The goal, he said, is to figure out how we can make this safer and enable more kids to have the kind of experience that my own daughters have had, which they say have been mostly positive and helpful.
“Our kids have one childhood, and they don’t get to repeat it again. And so we’ve got to do everything we can with full urgency to make sure that these priorities are places where we take quick action,” he said.
Murthy recommends that parents take three steps to start helping their kids maximize the benefits and minimize the harms, especially if they are already on social media.
1. Have the conversation. “Start the conversation with your child about social media so you can learn how they use it, how they feel when they use it. And you can also help them understand what’s a safe and unsafe interaction or engagement on social media. We want our kids to know if they’re being harassed or bullied, especially by strangers, that they should reach out for help,” Murthy said.
2. Establish tech-free zones. “We know that for our kids, especially in adolescence, that sleep is critical for them, physical activity is essential, and in-person interaction is vital. So creating tech-free zones around those activities – for example, having an hour before sleep and throughout the night when your kids can’t use their devices, making dinner time or mealtimes tech-free zones – that can also help those kinds of boundaries,” he said.
3. Partner with other parents. “That can actually make it a bit easier to make some of these changes and to also troubleshoot when we’re having a hard time. It can also help our kids too, because if we are putting certain limitations or boundaries in place and we’re doing that collectively, with other parents, then our kids know that they’re not the only kids out there who are being limited in their use of social media,” he said.
I know I hear that a lot from my kids – “but every other kid gets to do this” – and as Murthy pointed out, it’s hard as a parent to hear that, because you don’t want your kid left out or isolated.
But I am also reassured because my eldest daughter told me, in retrospect, that my wife and I probably should have kept her off social media a little bit longer. And while that was hard to hear, it also let me know that she, and her sisters, are aware of social media’s potential pitfalls.
Murthy has one last piece of advice for parents. “I just want all parents out there to know that this is an incredibly difficult issue to manage for your kids. And if you’re struggling, if you’re having a hard time, if you have days where you feel like you made the wrong decision for your kid, please don’t beat yourself up over that, and know that a lot of parents are in the same boat. They’re dealing with this new, evolving technology that a lot of people still don’t fully grasp or understand. And so just don’t be too hard on yourself,” he said.
And that’s a message we can all take to heart. The fact is, the deck is stacked against us, with apps specifically designed to keep us on them longer and longer. And we as parents can’t be expected to change everything by ourselves. To that end, Murthy’s advisory also has plenty of recommendations for what social media companies can do to make their apps and platforms safer (such as time limits and an end to infinite scrolling) and the role researchers and others can play in getting more basic data about safety (such as which kids are is at higher risk of harm).
Murthy’s advisory, which goes further than statements from other medical organizations, is a rallying cry, if you will, for society – researchers, legislators, Big Tech, parents – to stop collectively ignoring the problem and start acting now to address it.
Parenting is filled with hard decisions and conversations. This is one you can start now to help shape the future you want for your children. By laying out the issues facing many parents today, the surgeon general’s report gives us a roadmap for a way forward.
How to talk about screen time
Not sure how to start a conversation with your kids about internet and social media use? Here’s a list of conversation prompts that might help.
- Walk me through how you typically use your phone in a day. Are you on as soon as you wake up? During class? Just before falling asleep?
- How much time do you estimate you spend on your phone on an average day? Do you feel that’s too much, not enough or just the right amount of time?
- Which apps, games or platforms are your favorite, and why do you like them? When you get on your favorite, what do you hope to get out of it?
- Do you feel you have a healthy relationship with technology and social media? What does a healthy relationship look like to you?
- Do you feel you have fair and clear boundaries for screen time? Are those limits something you can stick to? Do you want to see some changes to the rules?
- Has there ever been a time when technology got in the way of doing an activity you wanted to do?
- Do you ever feel like there’s pressure from friends or people at school to be on your phone?
- Are there some people you know who don’t use technology in the best ways?
- Is there anything about technology or social media you’re worried about?
- Have you ever tried to reduce your screen time? What made you feel that way? What did you do and did this work?
- Are you hopeful for your future? Why or why not?