Dr. Venus Nicolino and Other Psychology Experts Echo the Surgeon General’s Warning About Social Media’s Harm to Youths

In May, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released a 19-page report citing evidence of social media use as harmful to children and teens. In the report, Murthy said there isn’t enough evidence to say social media is safe. 

“There is growing evidence that social media use is associated with harm to young people’s mental health,” according to the report, which cited multiple data points about youths’ worsening mental health. “We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis,” Murthy said. “And I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis — one that we must urgently address.”

Dr. Venus Nicolino, a well-respected doctor of clinical psychology, is among the experts who label social media as a causative factor. The Los Angeles Times bestselling author of Bad Advice: How to Survive and Thrive in an Age of Bulls–t, Nicolino says there’s a positive side; she uses social media to educate audiences about mental health. Murthy wrote that young people can find community in some online forums. 

According to Pew Research, up to 95% of teens reported using at least one social media platform. More than one-third said they used social media “almost constantly.” 

The surgeon general’s report is the most recent statement damning social media’s influence on children and teens. Out of caution, many journalists and psychology experts continue to soft-pedal the issue, stating that correlation doesn’t equal causation. Others have sifted through the evidence to make the call for causation. 

But Nicolino has long expressed concern about the lose-lose comparisons teenagers make on social media platforms like Instagram. 

“Social media leads to infinite comparisons no one can withstand,” Venus Nicolino says. “If she scrolls long enough, the most beautiful girl finds it easier to pick out her flaws. She compares herself to hundreds of other faces and bodies.”

The U.S. rates of mood disorders are higher for girls than boys, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The survey reports that most teen girls (57%) now say that they experience persistent sadness or hopelessness (up from 36% in 2011), and 30% of teen girls now say that they have seriously considered suicide (up from 19% in 2011).

The simultaneous rates of depression and anxiety aren’t as high for boys, nor have they increased as much since 2011. In 2018, researchers Mariska Kleemans, Serena Daalmans, Ilana Carbaat, and Doeschka Anschütz studied social media’s effect on teenage girls. Their experiment revealed that social media — particularly Instagram — is a cause rather than a mere correlation of poor mental health, especially in teen girls and young women.

To study the dangers of physical comparisons on social media, the team randomly assigned 144 teen girls (14 to 18 years old) to view Instagram “selfies.” Some photos were untouched, and others were manipulated to increase the subject’s attractiveness. 

“Results showed that exposure to manipulated Instagram photos directly led to lower body image,” the report said. 

What Mental Health Experts Dr. Vivek Murthy, Jonathan Haidt, and Dr. Venus Nicolino Say About Social Media’s Bad Influence

Dr. Vivek Murthy discussed social media’s dangers in his 19-page advisory, noting that “much of the evidence” points to a risk of harm. For example, the advisory reported that adolescents who spend more than three hours per day on social media face double the risk of developing symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

The surgeon general’s advisory noted dangers such as cyberbullying and “extreme, inappropriate, and harmful content” that can normalize self-destructive behavior such as self-harm and eating disorders.

Dr. Venus Nicolino feels strongly about youths viewing dark, age-inappropriate content. 

“Teens see highlight reels of doom based on news reports, which are then rehashed by reaction videos,” Nicolino says. “Every problem in the world pops up on kids’ social media feeds. The world’s weight is in their faces and on their shoulders.”

After the surgeon general’s advisory was published, Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the NYU Stern School of Business, pushed the envelope in a piece called “Social Media Is a Major Cause of the Mental Illness Epidemic in Teen Girls.” 

Haidt wrote about several societal threads pushing teens’ mental health to the brink since the 2010s. But the research shows social media is the most significant factor, he wrote, noting that social media’s emergence also explains why the epidemic started so suddenly.

Haidt wrote that there is “a consistent story emerging from these hundreds of correlational studies” and pointed to smartphones in general and social media in particular as the culprits. (Overall, he wrote, correlational studies show that digital media, such as TV or videos, is less harmful than social media.)

Apple released the iPhone 4, the first smartphone with a front-facing camera, in 2010, and Instagram made its debut. When Facebook bought Instagram in 2012, its user base exploded.

The Lowdown on Social Media’s Unhealthy Influence

Dr. Venus Nicolino joins a growing number of voices demanding action to protect adolescents from the harmful effects of social media. Along with Murthy, Nicolino cites federal research that today’s teenagers get less sleep and exercise and spend less time with friends. All three factors can worsen mental health.

After the surgeon general’s advisory was published, Murthy gave interviews to clarify its finer points about social media companies’ responsibilities. “We’ve got to do what we do in other areas where we have product safety issues, which is to set in place safety standards that parents can rely on, that are actually enforced.”

As with other public health issues, such as smoking, safety belts, and AIDS, the surgeon general’s office can affect change on the macro level. Dr. Venus Nicolino makes personal recommendations on a micro level, such as “ditch mental junk food.” She says this “food” category includes social media. 

“These are the guilty pleasures you indulge in that you know are bad for your mental health, like scrolling on social media or indulging in negative gossip,” Nicolino says. “I try to avoid letting too much mental garbage inside my head.”

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