‘There Is No Substitute’: Biden’s Surgeon General Blames Excessive Phone Use For Mental Health Crisis

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Michael Ginsberg Congressional Correspondent
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Surgeon General Vivek Murthy blamed increased smartphone and social media use for deteriorating mental health in American teenagers during a Thursday hearing.

“There is no substitute for in-person interaction with human beings,” Murthy told Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee chairman Bernie Sanders of Vermont. “As human beings, we evolved over thousands of years to perceive not just the content of what someone says, but also interpret their body language, to sense nonverbal cues. We take all of that in and that contributes to a rich human interaction. When you strip a lot of that away, you lose a richness, you lose a quality of connection.”

Over the course of the COVID-19 lockdowns, the mental health of teenagers decreased drastically. Mental health insurance claims for individuals between the ages of 13 and 18 nearly doubled year-over-year between April 2019 and 2020. (RELATED: What Is A ‘Suicide Cluster,’ And Why Has COVID Increased Them?)

Other studies have found that deteriorating mental health among young people began before COVID-19, however. Between 2009 and 2019, the number of pediatric hospitalizations for mental health issues increased by more than 25% and the number of hospitalizations for self-harm and suicide rose 30 points, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. Facebook became available to all users thirteen and older in 2006, while the first iPhone was sold in 2007.

“That’s not to say there’s never a place for texting or for online connection. But what I worry about is that the balance has shifted dramatically toward online connection and away from in-person, particularly for our kids,” Murthy acknowledged.

“But the other concern, senator, is not only what kids are missing out on as a result of social media, but what they’re being exposed to on social media. I talk to parents all over the country who, and to kids as well, who say that they’re exposed to content that’s violent and sexual in nature, that they’re often bullied and harassed online. Six out of ten adolescent girls are telling us that they’ve been approached by strangers on social media in ways that have made them feel uncomfortable.”

Utah became the first state to limit teens’ social media usage when it passed a bill requiring that users under age 18 receive parental consent before they use certain apps. The state also prohibits minors from using social media apps between 10:30 pm and 6:30 am. Companies that target minors with “addictive algorithms” can be fined up to $250,000.

“I’m concerned both about what is not happening as a result of social media in our kids’ lives, but also about some of the toxic effects of what they’re being exposed to,” Murthy added.