When should kids be able to use social media? Many are starting to use the sites way too soon, according to Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.
That's why he and his wife, who is also a doctor, won't be letting their two children use social media apps until they're older, he told NBC News chief White House correspondent Hallie Jackson during an interview on TODAY aired May 23.
Murthy's daughter, 5, "came up to my wife and I and asked us if she could post a picture on social media," he recalled. Although she's still in preschool, "she’s been hearing about this from her friends. And it speaks to just how just ever-present social media is in our children’s lives, which is why it’s so important that we take measures to protect them."
The standard minimum age on many social media apps and sites is 13, which Murthy says is too young.
We don't have enough data to say for sure at what age is safe for kids to start using these sites, Murthy said. "I can tell you what I will do for my kids, based on all the data I’ve seen," he added, "which is that I will delay their use of social media past middle school."
Murthy and his wife recognize that "it won’t be easy," he said. "And so we’re planning to find parents that we can partner with and do this together. Because we know that taking action in groups is sometimes easier than doing it on your own."
And when their kids are in high school, they'll reassess whether it's time for them to use social media.
Murthy’s rules around his kids' social media use came up during a conversation about a new U.S. Surgeon General advisory on social media and youth mental health, released May 23, which states that "we cannot conclude social media is sufficiently safe for children and adolescents."
New warning raises health and safety concerns of social media
"Parenting is tough. You and I know this as parents, but millions of parents across the country (are) telling me this, as well," Murthy told Jackson. Many parents are saying "that parenting is harder now than it was 20 years ago," he continued. "And the top two reasons they cite are technology and social media."
The advisory raises safety concerns around children talking to predatory strangers, being exposed to disturbing content and the risk for mental health issues during critical periods in development.
Research cited in the report suggests that spending more than three hours on social media per day puts kids and adolescents at risk for depression and anxiety. Other studies have found that heavy social media use is associated with poor body image, poor sleep and low self-esteem, especially among young girls.
And it's not just parents who are concerned, he said. Social media comes up frequently in his conversations with kids.
"When I talk to kids, they tell me three things most consistently about social media," Murthy said. "One, it makes them feel worse about themselves. Two, it makes them feel worse about their friendships. Three, they can’t get off of it."
So, Murthy is issuing the new advisory "because I wanted to pull together all of the publicly available data that we have, to talk to researchers in the field, and put together our best assessment to be able to answer the questions that parents have," he said.
The verdict? "At this point, we do not have enough evidence to say with confidence that social media is sufficiently safe for our kids," Murthy explained.
Context and tools to navigate social media
Earlier this month, the American Psychological Association released an advisory about social media use among teens. And the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends screening teens who are frequent users of social media for depression and anxiety.
The APA also notes that social media is not inherently harmful or helpful. And the AAP points out that the apps can also have benefits for some kids and teens, like helping them feel more connected to peers.
“Adolescents’ lives online both reflect and impact their offline lives,” the APA says. “The effects of social media likely depend on what teens can do and see online, teens’ preexisting strengths or vulnerabilities and the contexts in which they grow up.”
In the new advisory, kids, parents and caregivers will find tips for creating healthier social media habits and limits in their homes. It also emphasizes that policymakers and technology companies can do a lot to facilitate more research and ensure that the health and safety of young social media users remain a priority.
"As parents, we should not have to just accept the fact that our children will be exploited online or that they may be bullied or harassed online, or that they may be made to feel worse about themselves online," Murthy said.
Parents want their kids to grow up feeling secure and good about themselves and their relationships, he continued. "And I worry that that’s not what many of our children are getting (to experience on) social media."