FEB 03, 2022

Breaking News: Surgeon General’s Youth Mental Health Advisory

Discover what led to the notice, who contributed, and what can be done

By Joseph Pratt
Gabb Family Resources

Admiral Vivek Murthy—our “nation’s doctor”—recently published Protecting Youth Mental Health: A U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory to warn technology industries, parents, and community leaders about growing mental health concerns amongst adolescents. The advisory calls attention to an “alarming increase” in teen mental health problems, with “one in three high school students and half of female students report[ing] persistent feelings of hopelessness or sadness” (Office of the Surgeon General, 2021, p. 3).

Why the Notice?

  • The decline in adolescent mental health is very concerning
  • The tech industry is held accountable and warned
United States Public Health Service

The advisory calls attention to just how much teens use social media, citing, “In 2020, 81% of 14- to 22-year-olds said they used social media either “daily” or “almost constantly” (Office of the Surgeon General, 2021, p. 25). Admiral Murthy explains several reasons for the trend, but outlines actions of the tech industry, which have fostered potentially hazardous environments for young people.

The document explains that “social media, video gaming, and other technology companies” should contribute solutions because their products have been shown to “expose children to bullying, contribute to obesity and eating disorders, trade off with sleep, encourage children to negatively compare themselves to others, and lead to depression, anxiety, and self-harm” (Office of the Surgeon General, 2021, p. 25). 

There is a clear need to better understand the impact of technologies such as social media on different kinds of users, and to address the harms to users most at risk.

-Vivek H. Murthy, M.D., M.B.A. Vice Admiral, Surgeon General of the United States

People Before Profits

The surgeon general suggests that tech companies have an obligation to put people before profits in order to improve youth mental health, even if it comes at the expense to these companies in “engagement, scale, and profit.” Suggested ideas include educating families about risks, developing products that encourage growth and development, and limiting content that would harm kids.

What Can Families Do?

The surgeon general offers several recommendations for how young people, families, and community leaders can make a difference.

How Can We Move Forward?

  • Recognize online dangers
  • Use social media in positive ways

There is still a need for more research about the impact of social media, but Admiral Murthy points out that certain online activities hurt some young people, and the results can be devastating (Office, 2021, p. 25). He calls for a deeper analysis of who is most at risk and what can be done to protect them. He encourages youth and parents to use social media in positive ways, such as connecting meaningfully with friends and family.

Only when we demand change will we be able to protect, strengthen, and support the health and safety of all children, adolescents, and young adults—and ensure everyone has a platform to thrive.

-Vivek H. Murthy, M.D., M.B.A. Vice Admiral, Surgeon General of the United States, 2021

In spite of the sacrifices that it may require, we will see progress when “all of society” contributes to solutions (Office of the Surgeon General, 2021, p. 4). “This is the moment to demand change—with our voices and with our actions” (Office of the Surgeon General, 2021, p. 40). 

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