Ford School expert shares thoughts on next steps after US report on social media's effects on youth

June 5, 2023

A Ford School public policy expert who has reviewed the U.S. surgeon general's advisory outlining social media's profound risks to children's mental health says policymakers will need a great deal more data before making any formal recommendations.

That research, she adds, should involve those most affected by the technology—and those responsible for it should be working on effective solutions.

Katherine Michelmore, Ford School associate professor of public policy whose current research explores family and education policy as well as social demography and inequality, says the report by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is helpful for raising awareness of the issues around social media and mental health.

The advisory says more research is needed to fully understand the social media's impact. Yet, there are strong indications that social media can have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents, despite evidence that social media may have benefits for some in certain cases.

Michelmore highlights some gaps in knowledge and shares some of her own recommendations as well as those that draw from the report:

Be rigorous and look for patterns

I agree that we need a lot more rigorous research on the topic before proceeding with more formal recommendations. As articles have pointed out, there are also benefits to social media use, such as allowing LGBTQ youth to connect with others and find social support. I think we need to learn a lot more about patterns of social media use among teens and adolescents, and more details about the harmful effects.

Dig deep and ask questions

Some questions that I think are important to learn more about: 

  • At what ages are children experiencing harmful effects? 
  • What types of content are associated with negative outcomes? 
  • Are all apps/social media sites equally harmful? 
  • Is there a threshold at which we start to see more harmful effects?

Involve youth and look long term

This is where I think it would be very useful to get input from children and teens—we should be determining whether there are experiments that can more rigorously test the consequences of social media on children and teens in a safe way. Can we, for instance, test how the length of time, types of interactions with social media and content all contribute to effects on children? 

Additionally, while it's difficult to obtain, we need to know a lot more about longer-term consequences of social media exposure on kids. Perhaps by leveraging variation in the timing of when smart phones first arrived on scene and how teens have been faring since then. 

Final thoughts

I think we need to think creatively about what types of regulations are likely to be effective.

Even when apps have minimum age limits, it's not too difficult for younger children to get around those requirements. So how can we design policy that actually works toward the goal of improving children's mental health? 

This is where I think we need policymakers to work in conjunction with tech companies to design effective tools, such as time limits that actually work. That could be, for example, a 60-minute daily time limit that resets every day.

I think it is good to raise awareness of this issue and I hope that the advisory will spur more research into the underlying causes so that we can best determine the policies to put in place. 

This Q&A was produced by Jeff Karoub and Safa Hijazi of Michigan News.