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The surgeon general says 13 is too young for social media – is he right?

group of young people with mobile phones on the street

carballo / Shutterstock

Zoe Romanowsky - published on 02/02/23

“Because although sites allow children of that age to join, kids are still ‘developing their identity.’”

The US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently said that he thinks 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.’”

There is a growing body of research about the harms that social media can cause teens — and adults, too. 

According to an article in Business Insider, last year took a survey of 1000 Americans over the age of 18 and learned that people check their phones an average of 262 times per day. 

And while we may be inclined to think that stat is the result of a moral failing  by so many of us, we now know that it’s more attributable to something called “behavioral design.” Apps and social media platforms are purposely designed to take advantage of the way our brains are wired to acquire habits. 

In the Business Insider article, app developer Peter Mezyk said that three criteria are required to form a habit: “sufficient motivation, an action, and a trigger.” And this approach  is now the standard for app developers. (It’s based on the  Fogg Behavior model, established by Stanford professor B.J. Fogg.)

So what does this mean for teen use of social media then?

A Pew Research study was done in 2018 which surveyed 750 teens between 13 and 17 and it found that 45% of teens are online almost constantly and 97% use social media platforms such as youTube, Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat. (TikTok can no doubt be added to that list now, too.) 

And while social media allows teens to communicate and build networks — because that’s where their peers are — the harms clearly outweigh the benefits. 

The Mayo Clinic Staff points out that social media negatively affects teens by distracting them, disrupting their sleep, exposing them to bullying spreading rumors, peer pressure, and unreaslitic views of life. There are also links between high social media use and mood disorders like depression and anxiety.

The answer to this problem may lie in a solution we have used in the past for things like smoking and drunk driving: a decisive effort on the part of those who serve the public and civic and religious leaders to create and launch campaigns that make social media use among young people undesirable and uncool.  

If more and more decision-makers and communities, like parents and schools, refuse to allow teens to use social media and online platforms, young people will find other ways to relate and socialize. What’s old, like phone calls and meet ups in person, can be new and cool again. 

But it won’t happen without a concerted, multi-level effort. Maybe that’s one thing that can come from people like the surgeon general speaking out on the matter. 

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