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HHS to Fund Center Focused on Social Media Use and Youth Mental Health

June 1, 2022 by Alexa Hornbeck
Teen girls on phones at Short Pump Mall in Richmond, Va., Courtesy of Philip Cohen via Flickr

WASHINGTON — The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will soon direct millions in funds towards examining the impact of social media use on the mental health of teens and children.

“Social media can be associated with negative mental health outcomes, particularly among young people, and children under 18 are disproportionately vulnerable to the addictive nature of online platforms, comparison culture of social media, and the harmful and dangerous content that they might encounter online, among other concerns,” said Danielle Bennett, a spokesperson from SAMHSA, in an email to The Well News.

SAMHSA will award one applicant $2 million per year for up to five years to create what will be called the Social Media and Mental Wellbeing Center of Excellence. 

Bennett said that applications are currently being collected until July 18, and that the anticipated award date is Sept. 1, with the start date for the center set for Sept. 30.

The center that will be created with the funds from SAMHSA will assist in disseminating information, guidance and training on the impact social media use has on children and youth, especially the risks to their mental health. 

Bennett also said the center will examine the clinical and social interventions that can be used to mitigate those risks.

Eligible applicants for the award include entities like domestic public and private nonprofit entities, state governments, federally recognized Native American/Alaska Native tribes and tribal organizations, public and private universities and colleges, and community and faith-based organizations.

To apply for the funds, an applicant must outline a plan for the first three years of the center, which includes expectations that a selected applicant will conduct an environmental scan, literature review and focus group with stakeholders such as technologists, youth voice, and mental health experts on current behavioral health issues surrounding social media for young people.

Bennett said the U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory on protecting youth mental health that was released in 2021 drew attention to the harms of social media platforms and served as a call to action to create the center. 

The Biden administration also included the Social Media and Mental Wellbeing Center of Excellence as part of the updated national strategy to tackle the mental health crisis which was released on Tuesday. 

Studies have been emerging over the past 10 years which connect the dots of increased social media use to increased mental health crises among children and teens.

One study from researchers at Brigham Young University in Utah finds that social media was impacting child and teen mental health prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The study, published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence in February 2021, was based on annual surveys collected over a 10-year period from 2009 to 2019. The findings show that increased use of social media can be particularly harmful for young girls.

“Girls and women in general are very relationally attuned and sensitive to interpersonal stressors, and social media is all about relationships,” said Sarah Coyne, the lead author of the study in a written statement

To develop the study, BYU researchers tracked the media use patterns and mental health of 500 teens, finding that 13-year-old girls who used social media for at least two to three hours per day at the beginning of the study, and greatly increased this use over time, were at higher risk of suicide as adults. 

A study published in April 2022, and supported by the National Institutes of Health, finds that teens accounted for a larger share “of all suicides in 2020 — 6.5% — than they did during the five previous years, 5.9%.” 

The study shows increased rates of suicides and depression among teens in areas where COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns were more severe, such as California, New Jersey and Virginia. 

The state of California is already working to develop policy solutions to hold social media companies more accountable for the role they play in child and teen mental health.

The California State Assembly passed Assembly Bill 2408, also known as the “Social Media Platform Duty to Children Act,” on May 23, 2022,  to hold social media companies responsible for harming children who become addicted to them.

The law would prohibit social media platforms with parent companies whose annual revenues exceed $100 million from addicting any child user via use or sale of personal data. It would also allow any parent or guardian of a child to sue these social media giants for $25,000 per violation.

The bill cites Facebook research, showing that the company is aware that “severe harm is happening to children,” who are disconnected from family and school the more addicted they become to social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

Included in the bill text are findings that girls have a higher prevalence of screen addiction, and are more likely to end up depressed or suicidal, with studies from Facebook showing that 66% of teen girls on Instagram experience, “negative social comparison.” 

Alexa can be reached at alexa@thewellnews.com 

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