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Askwith Education Forum Highlights Teen Well-Being in a Tech-Filled World

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy detailed the struggle many adolescents have with social media and what can be done to help

The latest Askwith Education Forum at the Harvard Graduate School of Education saw U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy paint a harrowing yet hopeful image of life online for adolescents navigating a digital existence in the age of social media.

Friday’s event marked the official launch of the Center for Digital Thriving, a new research and innovation center based at Project Zero. The Center’s work seeks to transform understandings of how young people — and everyone else — can thrive in a technology-filled world.

Founded by HGSE researchers Carrie James, a sociologist, and Emily Weinstein, an educational psychologist, the Center will continue their work exploring the emerging digital landscape that young people are encountering today and to answer questions about what it’s like for teens to grow up with social media.

Weinstein, who served as the event’s moderator, led Murthy through a discussion of a recent Surgeon General’s Advisory on Social Media and Youth Mental Health. With Center researcher, Harvard undergraduate Destinee Ramos, the discussion centered on the harmful influence social media can have on the mental health of teens.

Harvard undergrad and Center for Digital Thriving researcher Destinee Ramos
Harvard undergrad and Center for Digital Thriving researcher Destinee Ramos discusses teen social media usage
Photo: Jill Anderson

Murthy laid out the reasons he issued his advisory and stressed that this struggle is not generational, merely that teens today simply have near-universal use of social media platforms without guardrails or restrictions to protect from its impact. The Surgeon General was highly critical of the way social media companies have fed on human nature to maximize time spent scrolling, often showing people graphic content without consideration of its impact on the user.

“I think if most of us who are older grew up in the current digital environment, we would face the exact same challenges because the technology is designed to maximize how much time we're spending with it.” Murthy said. “It's not designed necessarily with the primary outcome being making sure it's time well spent. It's about time spent, and that's what drives the revenue model.”

Murthy advocated for a “safety first” mindset for social media that we see in other sectors like medicine or the auto industry. He compared safety measures like seatbelts, crash testing, and airbags developed amid a sharp increase in automotive fatalities as an example of not simply accepting the consequences for rapidly evolving technology.

Center on Digital Thriving event with Vivek Murthy
Onstage, L-r: Emily Weinstein, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, and Destinee Ramos
Photo: Jill Anderson

“If we had a medication that we made available to the public that helped some people but caused serious harm to many others, we would pull that right away, right?” Murthy reasoned.  “That would not be acceptable.”

Instead, Murthy noted, social media is often considered too big to make safe for children, and not enough thought has been given to its impact on the mental health of its users. Especially adolescents disproportionately dealing with depression and anxiety compared to other generations.

“We placed the entire burden of making the social media experience safe for children on the shoulders of parents, who often grew up without social media, who are not technology experts or keeping up on the latest changes,” he said, criticizing social networks for not adapting a “safety first” mindset when it comes to its users. “And it's just not acceptable. ‘We'll do the best we can’ and ‘we'll try hard’ doesn't cut it when kids' lives are at stake. There needs to be accountability. There has not been any.”

Murthy offered some suggestions for parents worried their children are spending too much time encountering negative or harmful content on underregulated social media platforms. Creating tech-free zones to allow space and alone time topped the list, as well as leading by example and encouraging parents to limit their own time on social media to better engage with their kids face-to-face. Murthy also noted parents should “encourage positive forces into their lives,” whether that’s time with family or friends or activities that don’t include screen time.

Despite the dangers and challenges of a fast-moving technology and the difficulties that lay ahead, the U.S. Surgeon General closed with a hopeful message for Forum attendees.

“We can’t turn off all of that harmful content. We can’t shield them entirely from a lot of the pain that’s out there in the world,” said Murthy. “But we can remind them that we love them. That with us they have a secure relationship. We can help them find spaces that are some relief and a break from that pain. We can help them fill their lives with positive, uplifting forces that they can hopefully turn to for sustenance long after we’re not there.”

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