Dear Surgeon General,
I have a bone to pick with you. But I know that’s not exactly how I should start this conversation so let me first say, thank you for your recent statement on the harms of social media for today’s youth.
With all due respect, where have you been?
I have been a licensed therapist for less than a decade and have been talking about this nonstop. I say this because I was quite young when I entered motherhood and the world of mental health, and it didn’t take me but a few months to see this issue that you are somehow just now seeing.
Either I am a freakin’ genius or people have had their head in the sand. I do not say this to be offensive or cast judgement…well maybe a little judgement…but I say this because I am exhausted and ready for you (and others) to step it up. I am disappointed in the lack of knowledge, awareness, and support on this issue that is highly effecting today’s youth and the future of our society.
I have felt so strongly on this topic that I even wrote a book about it! For the Sake of Our Youth: A Therapist’s Perspective on Raising Your Family In Today’s Culture, was published in 2020. Would you like a copy?
It’s high time people wake up, pay attention, and start reading, researching, and openly talking about the mental health crisis, suicide epidemic, and screen addiction happening in our society especially when it comes to the health of younger generations.
I am aware that I may not have gained widespread recognition or fame, despite my continuous efforts to raise awareness. In addition to my published work, I have been actively delivering presentations to parents, teachers, administrators, and religious institutions on these pressing concerns. Furthermore, as the co-founder of a nonprofit organization called LookUp, I have been empowering and educating families about the detrimental effects of excessive screen time, social media, and device dependency on our children.
We have now reached a critical point that I predicted as far back as 2015—the rapid deterioration of mental health in children due to excessive screen time and social media usage, resulting in devastating consequences such as suicide and familial heartbreak.
This should be a priority for our society.
I’d like to take some time now to share some of my research, from 2015 and some of the answers to the pressing questions that seem to be stumping our nation. So here we go.
As a therapist who works primarily with adolescents, back in 2015, I found the majority of my clients were struggling with suicidal ideation and self-harm. Now, in the mental health field, this is expected to be brought into our offices. However, 98% of my young clients were struggling with these dark and scary thoughts. 98%. I’ll be honest, I was not equipped, as a novice therapist, to handle the amount of darkness day in and day out. I thought there would be more balance and some light issues to tackle. However, I found that the issues that were being faced by these young hearts, were in fact, light. Issues such as a client’s mom getting upset with them for not unloading the dishwasher when asked, or a friend making fun of one’s hair and being insensitive, or someone not texting back when the client “knows” they are always on their phone, or feeling left out, or their parent punishing them by grounding them from their phone—All these seemingly trivial matters drove some of my clients to the point of attempting suicide. Can we justify such extreme reactions based on these circumstances alone?
I sought counsel and experienced many sleepless nights trying to understand and find a solution for this influx of suicidality happening in my community. This was not in any textbook I studied in grad school, this was not being understood by my mentors and colleagues. Suicidal thinking and the act of self-harm comes from deep rooted mental health issues. We have always known that such thoughts come from mental illness such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar for example. We know it can be caused by years of neglect, trauma, or substance abuse to name a few.
What was happening that something light, such as getting your phone taken away for the night or being lectured by your mom, was resulting in the outcome of suicide? As I worked with older teens, and began, unintentionally specializing in teen suicide, I noticed the ages getting younger and younger and younger. Down to 9 years old as my youngest client struggling and unable to get through the day without thinking of hurting themselves.
Was this just happening in my town or was there something bigger? As a mother of 4 toddlers, I couldn’t sit still knowing I was raising my kids in a time that suicide and self-harm were so casual and quick to come to thought.
And then I found it. It was the lack of proper coping mechanisms, increase in irrational thinking and the need for immediate fixes that had taken over. But why? What was happening in their day-to-day life that was creating such unhealthy lifestyles and lack of mental health.
Enter the smartphone.
Now, I could go into great detail about all of this, but honestly, I’ve already done that through my book. So again, I’d love to send you a copy. Please let me know your address once you are done reading this.
However, I will say this: In my research, I found six contributing factors that are affecting our culture that is directly effecting our kids’ mental health—and it all comes from the smartphone and smart devices. All of it.
Now, please excuse my lack of scientific knowledge. I went to school to work with people and help with healing by gaining management over lifestyles and emotions—not to talk about science. However, I know scientific backup is helpful and needed so I will do my darndest to answer some questions found from your statement:
1. How do in-person vs. digital social interactions differ in terms of impact on health, and what are the unique contributions of social media behavior to social connectedness, social isolation, and mental health symptoms?
OH MAN. Okay, I’d really like to respond to this question by again telling you to read my book, but I will give the bullet points here:
· In-person interactions have many advantages to the human over digital interactions such as the brain releasing oxytocin (and no, I am not a neuroscientist so please excuse my lack of scientific jargon- however, this has not only been well-known for decades but it’s common sense at this point) Oxytocin, also known as the cuddle chemical, helps us feel important, loved, establish deeper connections and provide a sense of belonging and community—which humans have needed forever. Anyone need a good hug? Even you, Dr. Murthy, could probably use a good, tight squeeze from time to time.
· Digital social interactions deprive humans from communicating fully with facial expressions, body language, and social cues. Our kids, who are only socializing online, are lacking in all these areas creating social anxiety, promoting social isolation, lack of motivation, heightened depression and encouraging cyberbullying.—If you don’t have to deal with the consequence of hurting someone’s feelings in person, rather say whatever you want behind a screen, then nasty things will be said. The person receiving the nasty comments, who already struggles with depression, lack of motivation, social anxiety and isolation, will take it very seriously and…do you see where I’m going with this? And this is happening at very young ages. Hurt people hurt people and there are a lot of hurt people who feel comfortable behind a screen who would NEVER say those things to the person’s face. It’s toxicity at its highest and most impactful form.
2. What are the potential pathways through which social media may cause harm to children’s and adolescents’ mental health and well-being? For example:
a. How does social comparison affect one’s sense of life satisfaction and in-person relationships?
It is human nature to compare. Social media has created a gateway to comparisons beyond measure. Effecting all ages (me included, oh to be a Pinterest mom!) but most harmful to young minds and hearts who are in the thick of finding their identity and place in this big world. Their neurodevelopment is fragile and sensitive, right-on track, but throw in social media and it creates despair, defeat, and unreachable expectations. From FOMO (fear of missing out) to body image to academics, athletics, finances, likeableness and on and on. It’s impossible and they feel it, every single day.
b. How does the use of social media, including specific designs and features relate to dopamine pathways involved in motivation, reward, and addiction?
Please don’t pretend as if you don’t know how big tech companies actively study the psychology and neuro-pathways to create products that are highly addictive giving an overload of dopamine to the brain as strong as gambling or cocaine use. If I know this information, surely you do as well. Dopamine is meant to be produced through drips in our brain that give us sprinkles of joy. Smart devices give dopamine dumps that not only feel good in the moment but create a huge withdrawal once the device is put down and therefore, sprinkles of joy are no longer joyful or fulfilling. How sad is that? Finishing a book or eating chocolate chip cookies just don’t do it anymore, they need to be alternating between playing a game on their device and checking TikTok videos all while watching Netflix from the TV—that’ll surely give them enough dopamine…until it’s not enough.
c. What type of content and at what frequency and intensity, generate the most harm? Through which modes of social media access (e.g. smartphone, computer) and design features? For which users and why?
I really can’t believe this is an actual question but maybe my irritability has gotten too high. Where do I begin…I’ll start with this horrifying fact:
1. The average age for a child to see pornography for the first time is 8 years old.
2. All social media platforms have the potential (and therefore, they do) to have ANY content. Don’t worry about your child seeing an R-rated movie…they can see worse just from the comfort of their room. Even Pinterest, Roblox, Snapchat, Tiktok, Instagram, and Discord.
3. Real-time nudity and predators are on all the platforms and gaming services attracting, tricking and grooming our kids. The internet has made it far too easy for sick adults to prey on our kids.
4. I believe all humans are at risk to all the harms, but obviously those who are not fully developed are at higher risk (25 and under)
5. Any access to the internet is going to have this harmful potential whether it be by smartphone, tablet, or computer.
d. What are the beneficial effects of social media? For whom are the benefits greatest? In what ways and under what circumstances.
I believe there are some benefits to social media, though not many and with those benefits come heavy negatives that outweigh the positives. For all ages. However, because our brains are not fully developed until the ages 25-28, those younger are more susceptible to the 6 contributing factors that I mention in my book. Lack of ability to control impulses, lack of full emotional regulation, impressionable brains are going to have the most harm from social media. And if the use of social media is not properly balanced/blended with daily life, no matter the age, the individual WILL fall into the mental health crisis we are seeing amongst youth. We are beginning to screen usage be prioritized over marriages resulting in depression, isolation and higher rates of divorce.
Social media benefits:
1. Long distance connections with family and friends
2. Business marketing
3. Some helpful resources and education
e. What individual, community, and societal level factors may protect youth from the negative effects of social media?
Read my book: you can order it here (I think at this point, you owe me a purchase)
Building connections: family connections and social connections without the dang screen present
- Teaching our kids resilience and healthy coping
- Prioritizing activities, creativity, productivity, sleep, and mental health over screens
f. What types of strategies and approaches are effective in protecting the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents on social media?
Parent involvement and monitoring:
1. Read my book- it covers all of this.
2. prioritizing social activity
3. setting screentime limits
4. not being naïve in thinking their kid wouldn’t get into something dangerous.
5. having ongoing conversations and building good relationships with the child
6. knowing what your kid is using their device for
7. investing in a blocking device (router) to slow down, filter, and block inappropriate sites.
8. Stop pretending like this isn’t a thing because it has created so much convenience and immediate gratification for you as well as for your child.
I want to say thank you for your time and patience while I “went off” a bit about this information. I realize this isn’t your actual doing but rather lack of attention on the matter. I am determined to help raise a generation of strong, independent humans who will do great in this world and while social media and screen addiction is creating quite the obstacle to do so, I will not give up. I appreciate your help on this matter and ask for more. I also apologize for not answering all of the questions you may have but would love to set up a follow up phone call to address the matter further. I look forward to hearing from you!
Tessa Stuckey, Licensed Professional Counselor, Mother of 4, Author/Speaker