The dangers of social media for young people

The US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has warned that excessive use of social media by young people carries serious health risks.

“Teens who use social media for more than three hours a day face double the risk of depression and anxiety symptoms, which is particularly concerning given that the average amount of time that kids use social media is 3 1/2 hours a day,” the Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy told Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep.

According to the advisory, 95% of teenagers ages 13-17 say they use a social media app, and more than a third say they use it “almost constantly.” The Social Media and Youth Mental Health advisory says social media can perpetuate “body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviors, social comparison, and low self-esteem, especially among adolescent girls.”

Nearly 1 in 3 adolescents report using screens until midnight or later, the advisory says. And most are using social media during that time.

It is obvious that such high usage must be filling some kind of need. But what need exactly? Are these young people bored and have no other activities to occupy them? Are they lonely and finding some kind of ersatz companionship among the other users? We know that social media sites measure success (and reap profits) by the amount of time that people spend on their sites and use algorithms to lure them in and get them to stay. But how much variety can they provide? Surely boredom has to set in at some point unless these young people feel that there is nothing better going on in their real lives.

Furthermore, there are real dangers in the form of these viral challenges that urge people to do dangerous things just to get views on the internet or even just for the hell of it, for the thrill of taking up a dare. I was shocked to read that about 1400 (and possibly many more) young people have actually died as a result of taking up something called the blackout challenge.

Social media challenges involve people recording themselves doing something dramatic, funny or risky. The videos often go viral. Some of these dares, however, can be dangerous. Like the blackout challenge, which is when someone holds their breath until they pass out.

Griffin is one of an estimated 1,385 children known to have died from the blackout challenge, according to a nonprofit called Erik’s Cause, which was founded by Judy Rogg, whose son also died from a choking game.

“That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” McGrath said. “The only ones we know of are the people that go to the news or find each other.”

YouTube spokesperson Brittany Stagnaro told NPR that the company’s policy is to remove videos that involve challenges with asphyxiation or choking. But, McGrath said she sees such videos and reports them daily. Often they’re not taken down. She said some videos have remained on the site for years.

Children have long challenged their peers to breath holding contests that result in them ending up gasping for air. But you would expect that in almost all cases, the basic life-preservation instinct would kick in and they would begin to breathe again before they pass out and die. What social media seems to be doing is greatly increase the number of people taking such dangerous challenges. Then even if the probability of someone taking it too far and dying is small, the large number of people now trying it can result in the number of deaths far exceeding what we are used to.

Parents of young children these days clearly have a challenge in how to educate them on the reasonable use of social media.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    I am highly skeptical of this, how do these people survive a night’s sleep?
    But if it is true, I think pediatricians should be screening their patients for this condition.

  2. says

    Sounds like high numbers, but I’d like to see what their “non screen/social media” usage is, e.g., watching TV. I suspect that it is not far removed from the amount of time their parents and grandparents spent watching old-style TV. And certainly, there were plenty of messages from that source regarding body image and the like.

    What I find distressing about screen usage, and this is true regardless of the age of the user, is that users tend to be unplugged from the environment around them. I sit in the doctor’s office waiting room and everyone else is buried in their phones. Maybe burrowed would be a better word.

  3. Jazzlet says

    jimf @2 if I have to listen to the irritating radio station my doctors play in their waiting room I will try to distract myself as much as I possibly can, and if I’ve forgotten to bring along suitable reading matter reading the Guardian on my phone usually works, so yes I’ll burrow into my phone while there, thank you very much.

  4. xohjoh2n says

    Are they lonely and finding some kind of ersatz companionship among the other users?

    Christ, what an old person thing to say. I remember my parents being just as dismissive 30 years ago. It suggests -- and I’m certain you know better! -- that you haven’t realised that “those computer people” are actually real people, that the interaction with them though not in-the-flesh is also real, and any companionship, also real.

  5. ardipithecus says

    I think it more likely that youth with depression or anxiety disorders are using social media as a coping mechanism than that the social media is causing the issues. What other day-to-day mechanisms are readily available? Same is true for many recreational drug users.

    It’s not as if there aren’t a lot of stressors on today’s teens. Global warming, increasing authoritarianism and other forces that they have no influence on or control over, but which the adults around them seem unwilling to do much about. A lot of my generation were disturbed by the looming threat of nuclear war, but that was only a maybe; the existential threats to youth nowadays are much more likely to occur.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    … when someone holds their breath until they pass out.

    I’ve read over and over that one can only hold one’s breath to the point of unconsciousness, after which autonomic reflexes take over and breathing resumes.

    How (without using a noose or suchlike) do these teens bypass that mechanism? Or have multiple sources misinformed me for decades? (The linked story does not address this.)

  7. John Morales says

    Most people — most children — are social beings. They socialise.

    Social media lets them socialise without actually being in the same place.
    So they do. Hardly surprising.

    According to the advisory, 95% of teenagers ages 13-17 say they use a social media app, and more than a third say they use it “almost constantly.” The Social Media and Youth Mental Health advisory says social media can perpetuate “body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviors, social comparison, and low self-esteem, especially among adolescent girls.”

    I note how the claim is that it “can”, not that it “does” or that it “will”, perpetuate those things.
    I imagine any social activity, whether or not electronically mediated, also “can” do that.

  8. John Morales says

    Yeah, thing is that the same platform that supports social media (often phone computers) are so useful and helpful for other purposes.

    In the news: Language app Feed the Monster the latest tool in battle to save endangered Warumungu language.

    WMDKitty, thing is, kids aren’t stupid, and typically are one generation or more ahead of their parents regarding the tech. And the lines are blurred.

    As an example, what proportion of parents would know that many games feature an in-game way to chat and exchange files?

  9. says

    @3 Jazzlet
    I apologize for that and totally agree with your position. My doctor’s office has no muzak and is a nice, quiet space. If it had muzak, I would probably bring ear plugs.

    And to be clear about my earlier post, my question is: Is the amount of time kids spend on their phones comparable to the amount of time their parents/grandparents spent in from of a TV? If so, is this no more of a problem than what their elders went through*? Further, unlike the TV, the phone can be socially interactive, although that cuts both ways.

    *which, indeed, could’ve been a problem.

  10. brightmoon says

    I’m with Pierce , how don’t they just wake back up. My late cousin used to keep children as a daycare and she had one little girl who would throw tantrums and hold her breath until she passed out . She’d pull this on her mother all the time . When she pulled it on my cousin, my cousin said “ Go right ahead, I don’t care!” Well when that kid sat up after regaining consciousness she never pulled that on my cousin again and since my cousin told her mother , I doubt it worked after that day with the mother either.

  11. says

    In regard to both this question and to “the internet is going to hell”, one of the biggest problems is, and always has been, the lack of identity or accountability where it’s needed, and the lack of anonymity where it’s needed.

    Just like in high school or anywhere in real life, those who want to stalk, harass, abuse or annoy can easily find ways to do it, and their victims can do nothing about it because (on line) they can’t identify the harasser or bully, or (in person) can’t stop the abuser nor prove it (“I wasn’t doing anything!” says the bully innocently). Or if the victims do retaliate, as often as not, they’ll be the only ones caught and punished, which hurts them and encourages the harassers.

    On the other side, those who need anonymity often can’t get it. Almost nowhere today can you sign up without a real name and number, or have to be a minimum age, or its difficult to keep out fakes who prey on people. Without a way to screen and protect people’s identity (while allowing them to speak), it’s next to impossible to find places of support, especially on topics where societal attitudes are still backwards.

    The same goes for social media. There are few or no places for finding support or like minds without predators, harassers, or able to communicate in an anonymous format when it’s a sensitive or emotional topic. There are plenty of places to find others when the topic is a hobby or casual discussion, but not when it’s serious.

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