United States Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy ’98 discussed the need for stricter social media regulations to improve adolescent mental health at a Harvard Graduate School of Education event on Friday.
The talk was held as a part of the HGSE’s Askwith Education Forum series, which aims to feature leaders from a range of disciplines to discuss issues that impact national education.
Emily Weinstein, co-director of HGSE’s Center for Digital Thriving, moderated Friday’s panel with Murthy, which also featured Destinee J. Ramos ’26, a research assistant at the center.
In her introduction to the event, HGSE Dean Bridget Terry Long drew attention to how digital safety impacts the field of education, asking a series of questions about whether parents and educators have the tools to protect students from the potential harms of using developing technologies like social media.
Weinstein began the panel by asking Murthy and Ramos to reflect on owning their first cell phones.
“It was one of my early experiences of falling into the efficiency trap, where we pursue things because we think they’re more efficient without always accounting for what we’re losing,” Murthy said of owning a portable phone. “I realize now — in retrospect — what I was losing is I wasn’t walking and talking with friends.”
“There were all of these missed opportunities for human connection that I was sustaining, all in the name of efficiency gains,” he added.
When asked what educators can do to support teenage mental health, Murthy said the pressures faced by teachers should first be acknowledged.
“If we are going to ask educators to do more, I think — as a country — we need to figure out how to better support them,” Murthy said.
He added that “it is heartbreaking” that teachers often need to spend their own money on school supplies.
In May, the Office of the Surgeon General released an advisory on social media and its effects on youth mental health. The advisory, which cited more than 100 studies, reported that adolescents who spend more than three hours on social media per day experience double the risk of depression and anxiety. Additionally, 46 percent of teens said social media made them feel worse about their body image.
The impact of social media on adolescents is a result of the platforms’ addictive nature, rather than a lack of determination in the teens affected, Murthy said.
“It’s not like suddenly we hit a decrement in people’s willpower in this generation of human beings — that is not the case,” Murthy added. “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 on it.”
Murthy said he hopes the advisory can serve as an official guideline for social media use, likening the need for an information campaign around usage to that of an unregulated medication.
“As a society we have allowed a situation to develop where we have this complicated — or rapidly evolving — technology that’s helping some people, that’s harming many, and we haven’t put in the safeguards or guardrails to mitigate it, ” Murthy said.
Looking to the future, Murthy said he is hopeful about effective limitations on social media that may encourage age-appropriate usage, citing potential positive outcomes to mitigate an “epidemic of loneliness.”
“Sometimes it can feel like we’re powerless in the face of a cultural force that seems to be moving so fast in the other direction — resulting in more polarization, more division, more loneliness and isolation,” Murthy added. “But what I do want to say, is that we do have more power than we think because we aren’t alone in wanting a better world.”