This week, the country's top official for public health issued a rare alert to Americans, calling social media use by children and teenagers an "urgent issue of public health" and urging parents, policymakers, technology companies, and schools to take action.
Vivek Murthy, Surgeon General, issued the warning only in extraordinary circumstances. The report, which is 19 pages long, documents how children and teenagers are easily exposed to 'extreme and inappropriate content', how social media promotes body dissatisfaction and disordered eating habits, low self-esteem and social comparison, and how two-thirds or more of teens are regularly exposed hate-based material.
Murthy's advice is quick to point out that current evidence on the impact of social networks indicates that they may have positive effects for some children and teenagers - creating a sense of community and safe places, for instance - but these pale in comparison with the "ample indicators" that social media could also be harmful to their mental well-being and health.
He wrote: 'At the moment, we don't have enough data to say whether social media is safe for children or adolescents.'
According to an explanation of how the public is supposed to receive this information, such advisories are only reserved for "significant public health issues that require immediate awareness and actions from the nation." The warning is a boost to a new wave of litigation that seeks to hold social media companies responsible.
Seattle Public Schools filed a complaint against TikTok and the companies that operate Instagram, Facebook SnapChat, and YouTube in January. They claimed that districts like theirs were 'on the frontlines of the youth mental illness crisis', and that social media sites put children under immense strain due to increased screen time and unfiltered content, as well as the potentially addictive nature of social media.
Seattle was not the only large urban school district that took on social media giants. In the past four months, similar lawsuits were filed by school leaders in Pittsburgh and Bucks County, Pennsylvania, San Mateo, California, Chatham, New Jersey, Bay County, Florida, including Panama City, and Mesa and Scottsdale, Arizona.
At least 11 Kentucky school districts, including Jefferson County, Fayette and the largest school district in Kentucky approved a resolution that would file a suit against the companies. They claim that the platforms were "designed to maximize youth usage and to addict youth to them', a strategy they believe has "harmed the mental, emotional and behavioral health of youth, and is associated with an increased rate of depression, anxiety and low self-esteem."
Three of Alabama's biggest districts also filed a complaint, alleging an 'egregious breach in the public trust'
U.S. News has counted more than 20 school districts that have filed lawsuits against the social media giants.
The lawsuits are coming at a time when K-12 students, and the schools who serve them, are in a vulnerable position. This is after an isolating epidemic that closed schools for two years in certain parts of the nation and decimated the support staff. Chalkbeat's analysis shows that 12 of the 18 largest school districts in the United States started this year with less counselors and psychologists than when they began fall 2019. That is nearly 1,000 mental health positions unfilled.
Teen girls have been especially affected by the lack of resources. The CDC has released new data showing that 3 out of 5 U.S. teen girl felt hopeless or sad in 2021 – double the number of boys. This is a 60% increase, and the highest reported level in the last decade.
And equally problematic for LGBTQ+ children - and especially transgender children - as Republican-controlled states pass laws limiting their access to books that center LGBTQ+ issues, strip their access to gender-affirming care and their ability to play on sports teams, bar education about sex and gender and block educators from being sources of support.
According to the Trevor Project, 45% of LGBTQ+ teens seriously considered suicide in the last year. 1/5 transgender youth and nonbinary teenagers attempted suicide.
Murthy has not been the first to raise this issue. He has been raising the alarm about the teen mental illness crisis for over a year, and urging the public to not become numb to the numbers.
In February, while visiting a Virginia school in Fairfax County, he and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said: 'These numbers are not normal, and this shouldn't be happening in our societies.'
Murthy and Cardona, as well as Health and Human Services Sec. Xavier Becerra, have urged states and school districts that they use the coronavirus relief assistance to boost mental health support for K-12 schools.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat from New Jersey, announced a mental health grant program of $14 million to support K-12 schools with the greatest need. North Carolina Gov. Roy Copper, a Democrat from North Carolina, announced the state's intention to invest nearly $8 million in suicide prevention training at community and university colleges, and also create a hotline for students. In Rhode Island, Democratic Governor. Daniel McKee announced a $7-million program that will train school staff to detect mental illness or suicide risk.
States like Arizona, California, and South Carolina have been increasing Medicaid reimbursement rates in order to encourage behavioral health providers to provide services at schools.
In his recent State of the Union Address, President Joe Biden criticized social media companies as contributing to the teen health crisis. He also called on Congress pass legislation to limit how tech companies collect information from children and to bar them from advertising towards minors.
He said that if millions of children are suffering from bullying, violence and trauma, they should have greater access to mental healthcare in their schools. We must hold social media companies responsible for the experiments they run on children to make money.
Biden signed the Bipartisan Safer Community Act into law in July last year, which included a $2 billion budget for mental health resources and staffing at schools. The Education Department has proposed to revise a rule that governs Medicaid Billing in order to make it easier to provide health care for eligible students.
Congress has not yet taken any action to regulate social media's impact on mental health among adolescents.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a Democrat, and Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, a Republican, both introduced the bipartisan Kids Online Safety Act in 2013. They made a last ditch effort to include the bill into the omnibus budget package, but to no avail. The two are now trying again, after holding a hearing on the legislation at the Senate Judiciary Committee in March, where they made a rare, bipartisan commitment to 'act quickly' on this issue.
Blackburn stated during the hearing that "our kids are literally dieing from things they access on the internet, from fentanyl and sex trafficking kits to suicide kits." It's not too early to save children and teens suffering today because Big Tech has refused to protect them.
This measure is designed to protect children from harmful material and requires social media companies set up parental controls for those under 16 years old. The measure would also require that social media companies create a method to protect children against addiction, stalking and exploitation, as well as other 'dangerous materials'.
In the House, TikTok's CEO Shou zi Chew received a bipartisan beating last month when he appeared in front of the Energy and Commerce Committee, whose members called the parent company ByteDance a national-security threat and claimed that the Chinese government could use the app for sensitive data and to collect personal information.
Many in the hearing room, however, were more concerned about the havoc that the app has already caused domestically. This included the parents of Chase Nasca who, at 16, jumped in front a Long Island Rail Road Train last year.
Dean and Michelle Nasca filed a lawsuit against ByteDance's parent company TikTok last month. They claimed that the app sent their son more than 1,000 videos that promoted suicide, hopelessness, and self-harm, despite him never searching for these terms. The Nascas are joining a growing number of parents who have sued social media companies for the death of their children.
Matthew Bergman is the founding director of the Social Media Victims Law Center and an attorney for Nascas. He says that the United States Government has been focusing on protecting national security but should be concentrating more on protecting the children in our country. We are trying to hold TikTok responsible for their dangerous and harmful practices, which put children at risk of harming themselves. All in the name to increase their advertising revenues.
As of now, dozens states have banned or restricted TikTok's use on government devices. Montana was the first state to ban TikTok from the public in order to stop the Chinese government gaining access personal information. Days later, however, the company filed a lawsuit against the state.
White House has also warned TikTok owners to sell their stakes in parent company, or risk a ban on the United States. Congress has proposed legislation in this regard, but most of the serious attempts to regulate social media websites like TikTok are in the name national security and data protection.
Utah is the only state to have successfully legislated social media usage by teens. It passed a law in January that required social media companies to obtain parental consent before allowing children to use apps. The law allows parents to access their children's accounts online, including private messages and posts. It also imposes curfews that block children from accessing the internet between midnight and 6 am.
Several other states, including Arkansas, California and Louisiana are also considering regulations of this nature. A bill was introduced in March by the Golden State, which is home to several social media giants, big tech companies, and other large firms. The bill would hold these companies responsible for the use of designs, algorithms, or features they know can lead to minors purchasing fentanyl or becoming addicted to their platforms, or causing eating disorders, self-harm, or suicide.
Bergman claims that TikTok deliberately targets American children with extreme, violent, and dangerous content. In China's TikTok version, children 14 and younger are restricted to 45 minutes of online time per day and directed to patriotic, educational, and museum videos.
Murthy’s advisory paints a very distinct picture of social media usage in the U.S. Up to 95% adolescents aged 13-17 report using social media platforms, and more than a quarter say they use it 'almost continuously.' While 13 is often the minimum age in the U.S. to access social media, almost 40% of children aged 8-12 use it.
In the advisory, research shows that adolescents aged between 12 and 15 who spend more than three hours a day on social media are at double the risk for poor mental health outcomes. This includes symptoms of anxiety and depression. By 2021, 8th and 10th graders will spend on average 3 1/2 hours a day on social media.
Murthy called on policymakers, among other things, to improve protections for children who interact with social media platforms. He also urged them to develop age-appropriate standards of health and safety for technology platforms. He also urged them to find ways to prevent children from accessing harmful material, to limit features that are designed to maximize engagement, to regularly assess the risks for children and teenagers, and to require a high standard of privacy for data to protect these children from abuse and exploitation.
Murthy stated in a press release that 'our children are unknowing participants of a decades-long study'. While there's still more to be learned about the impact of this experiment, we now know enough to protect our children.