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A Parental Wake-Up Call: U.S. Mental Health Advisory on Social Media + Our Teens

The U.S. Surgeon General dropped a health advisory in May 2023 and we should be talking more about it. No, not the one referring to how much lonelier we've become 😭, the one about social media and our kids. We've all been there; You're trying to have a solid moment with a teen in your life and they can't look away from their glowing screen for longer than 6 seconds at a time without seemingly preferring to explode rather than have a conversation with you! Or you casually probe them about something they're interested in only to get a 3-word answer. It can often feel like our homes are simply backdrops to the physical world they inhabit consistently being challenged + distorted by the allure of the digital realm. As I write this, I have about a handful of teens within earshot at any given time so this is a dynamic that I understand all too well. It's crucial for all of us (parents + non-parents alike) to take note. Social media is having a massive impact on the mental health and well-being of us all but particularly our tweens and teen girls per the advisory. As a #girldad, this finding took me out.

Unpacking the Report

The Surgeon General's advisory, the first-of-its-kind concerning social media and mental health, is candid in its findings. Here's what it outlines:

  • The pandemic has exacerbated our kids' reliance on digital platforms for education, socializing, and recreation. This 'hyper-connection' has upsides, but the downsides are too critical to overlook.

  • There's a clear link between heavy social media use and mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, self-harm, and even suicidal tendencies among young users.

  • It's not just about the quantity of time spent online. Harmful content and destructive comparison culture are serious issues too.

It's a hard pill to swallow, but a necessary one.

The Role of Tech Companies

The report calls out the tech companies. It's time they stepped up and took responsibility for the part they play in the situation.

  • Companies are urged to make meaningful changes to their policies to protect young users.

  • There's a call for more transparency from these companies about their research on the impacts of their platforms on young users' mental health.

  • Tech firms are asked to invest in the creation and promotion of positive, helpful content, not just the stuff that gets the most likes or shares.

The Impact on Teens of Color

While this is a wake-up call for all of us, it's important to highlight the specific challenges faced by Black teenagers in America outside of what social media contributes. Existing at the intersection of adolescence and racial identity presents unique stresses and pressures that only someone in Black skin can appreciate. Systemic racism and bias can contribute to heightened susceptibility to mental health issues among this group from the gate. It's a poignant reminder that mental health care must be intersectional, recognizing the unique experiences and vulnerabilities of diverse populations. This isn't to say that being a Black teenager equates to a certain mental health outcome, but it underscores the need for supportive measures, inclusive policies, and culturally sensitive mental health services. School districts have already filed lawsuits against major social media companies to defend our children but until something significant happens within the culture, we have to dismantle barriers for our Black teens in America at home.

Our HOMEwork?

We all have a part to play in this. Per the report, we should:

  • Encourage open conversation with your young ones about their digital lives. Understanding their online experiences is key.

  • Monitor your kids' online activity, but also respect their digital privacy.

  • Help them learn to critically evaluate the content they see online.

I'm struck by its relevance to a recent lawsuit by Pittsburgh Public Schools against social media giants. It's a bold reminder of the delicate balance we need to strike as digital engineers. We should always aim for a balance - engaging audiences, but at the same time, ensuring we're not crossing any lines, particularly when it comes to our children. I challenge all of us (but especially parents of girls) to become digitally literate and emotionally equipped to help them navigate this tricky digital landscape (just like us). We cannot afford to sit back and watch the digital world shape our our future generation without our guidance. It's time for us to step up, get educated, and start making a difference in our babies' digital lives. Easier said than done, but you're clearly not alone here.

Let's discuss: What measures have you taken to either reduce screen time and/or regulate screen usage in your camp? How has social media affected your tween/teen? What conversations have you initiated around their digital consumption? Peace + love.


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