By Dr. Anthony Policastro

The U.S. Surgeon General recently issued an advisory warning. The process is similar to the advisory issued on cigarette smoking in 1964. Data is gathered, a conclusion is reached, the advisory is issued.

The report points out that about 95 percent of adolescents ages 13-17 years use social media platforms. About one-third of them indicate that they use social media “almost constantly.” The number is 40 percent for youth ages 8-12 years.

The summary statement says “At this time, we do not yet have enough evidence to determine if social media is sufficiently safe for children and adolescents.”

Things that need evaluation include the amount of time spent on social media, the  type of content they view, and it includes how much the time spent disrupts participation in normal healthy activities.

There are positive benefits to social media. They allow social connections to others. They allow interactions with others that they might not see on an everyday basis. They can support individuals who are having a rough time. They allow individuals to be creative. 

The negative effects tend to be related to the amount of time spend on social media. Those who spent more than three hours daily have double the risk of having anxiety or depression. When these individuals have their time limited to 30 minutes a day, they show improvement in their symptoms over a three week period.

We already know that social media creates a bullying platform. It also allows individuals to body shame others. It often allows individuals to be exposed to explicit content. We have all heard of adolescents committing suicide related to social media accusations.

Social media behaviors can result in time being spent away from important activities. My daughter teaches high school Spanish. She often sends e-mails to parents whose child is using a cell phone during class time. The problem is that she repeatedly sends e-mails to the same parents without any evidence that the parents care.

She has one student who spends the entire time in every class on his cell phone. He is failing her class as well as the rest of his classes. He tells his classmates that he is going to attend West Point. I hope for the sake of the U.S. Army that does not happen.

Clearly parents play a major role. However, they do not shoulder the entire burden. Technology companies have a responsibility to protect children from inappropriate content. Their methods for doing that are inadequate.

The report also indicates that there is a role for policymakers. We have the FDA to monitor drugs. We have the Consumer Product Safety Commission to monitor commercial products like children’s toys. In a similar manner there is an opportunity for controls to be put in place to make sure social media is safe for children to view.

Of course this advisory is only step one. Many of us remember how the advisory on cigarettes started out with the labeling that cigarette Smoking can be Hazardous to Your Health. We will need to see when and if the current advisory leads to a change in behavior of responsible individuals.