Parents: Wait until your kids are 16 to let them use social media, says surgeon general

Social media platforms like TikTok or Instagram create a “skewed and often distorted environment” that’s not appropriate for young teens, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said over the weekend.

The average child is 12 and a half the first time they join social media. TikTok is the most popular platform, according to PEW Research; 67% of teens say they use it, while 62% use Instagram and 59% are on Snapchat.

“I, personally, based on the data I’ve seen, believe that 13 is too early” to use social media, he said during an interview on CNN Newsroom. Murthy’s advice to parents was to “band together” and keep teens off social media until they’re 16 or 17.

His words come as TikTok and other social media platforms face increasing scrutiny from researchers, public schools, national leaders and state governments for their role in fueling a mental health crisis among teens.

More than a third of teens say they’re on one of the major social media platforms “almost constantly,” PEW found. TikTok and Snapchat users are especially engaged; a quarter of teens who use them say they use them almost constantly.

Most of the biggest social platforms, including Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter, require users to be 13 or older. TikTok allows younger users, but with a children’s safety setting that the company says limits their contact with other users.

Murthy said age 13 is “a time where it’s really important for us to be thoughtful about what’s going into how they think about their own self-worth and their relationships, and the skewed and often distorted environment of social media often does a disservice to many of those children.”

A growing body of research suggests more screen time and heavier social media use impacts teens’ and children’s cognitive function and mental health in ways that are just beginning to be understood.

Research & lawsuits

Habitual checking of social media may alter brain development in middle schoolers, according to a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics, and makes their brains more sensitive to social consequences over time. Higher social media use has also been associated with symptoms of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in teens.

A new federal lawsuit last month assert social media platforms like Instagram are “designed to be addictive.” Because platform features are created to keep users compulsively scrolling, the complaint reads, “Teenagers who attempt to discontinue or taper Instagram use may experience symptoms of withdrawal common to other addictions.”

Internal Facebook research found Instagram worsened body image 1 in 3 teenage girls. A British court found Instagram and its parent company Meta culpable in the suicide of a 14-year-old girl who’d seen videos and images related to self-harm and suicide.

Even before the pandemic, mental health was getting worse among high school students, according to the CDC. Nearly half of high school students felt persistently sad or hopeless during the pandemic and more than 1 in 3 experienced poor mental health, according to a CDC survey of thousands of U.S. high school students during the pandemic.

Female and LGBTQ+ high schoolers are especially struggling. Female students are mor than twice as likely as their male peers to attempt suicide and LGBTQ+ students were five times as likely as their heterosexual peers.

Parents weigh options

Deciding how much social media use is OK – and at what age – is a challenge that leaves parents of teens with few good options. For their generation, social media is ubiquitous.

And it’s not uniformly damaging. Teens use social media to create or find community they may not be able to find in real life. Platforms can help teens connect meaningfully with friends and family, according to a report released by Murthy’s office in 2021. And more than half of teens are satisfied with the amount of time they spend on social media, and 54% say it would be hard to give it up.

But for parents who want to keep teens safe while they’re on social media, there are resources online. Common Sense Media offers advice for parents to help their teens manage the effects of social media on their health. Protecting their mental health doesn’t always include taking away a phone or screen; rather, parents are encouraged to ask questions of their teens, such as whether they see things online that make them feel unsafe. There are apps and sites designed to help kids address mental health issues.

One of the most common pieces of advice from experts: keep a conversation going with kids and teens about how they’re using social media and what they see.

Anna Claire Vollers

Anna Claire Vollers |

I report mainly on reproductive and maternal health, working parents and family policy at Reckon News.

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