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America is mobilizing to protect kids’ mental health. Social media and online safety bills are a good start—but California is going the extra mile

America is mobilizing to protect kids’ mental health. Social media and online safety bills are a good start—but California is going the extra mile

Young people are facing an unprecedented mental health crisis, amplified by political upheaval, school shootings, and climate uncertainty. However, skyrocketing costs for behavioral health, too few therapists to address the needs, and the devastating impacts of social media are worsening our youth mental health crisis.

There’s a movement afoot in Washington, D.C. to introduce legislation that prevents harmful social media content from reaching our children. Senate leadership is weighing support for three online safety bills to protect children from the potentially damaging impacts of social media. One such bill, The Kids Online Safety Act, would, among other things, prohibit social media from spreading potentially harmful material on topics like suicide or eating disorders, POLITICO reports. Others reportedly being considered include an update to a foundational online safety regulation, The Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA 2.0), while another, the Kids Off Social Media Act, would prohibit kids younger than 13 from accessing social media altogether.

Research demonstrates that social media has harmful effects on young people’s developing brains. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has repeatedly warned us about the dangers, even issuing a formal advisory about its impacts on youth mental health

As a clinical psychologist specializing in and overseeing content for a youth behavioral health and wellness platform, this is a welcome start. But it’s also just that—a start. To make a meaningful and lasting impact on this crisis, we must enlist private entities and public organizations (states, boards of education, departments of health) to tackle this problem together.

Some 20 million young people—one in five children—in the U.S. have a mental health condition, according to estimates. Unfortunately, only 20% of those receive care—and the lack of access is exacerbated by skyrocketing costs and the historic clinician shortage we find ourselves in.

A recent study by Brightline published in JAMA Network Open found that spending on pediatric mental health is up 31% since 2017, and children with a mental health condition accounted for 47% of total pediatric medical spending. In 2021, healthcare spending on a child with a mental health condition was associated with $4,361 higher total medical spending. For households with a pediatric mental health condition, a family’s healthcare spending was $2,337 higher, according to the study.

Nearly half of Americans live in areas with a mental health clinician shortage. Forty-two states have a severe clinician shortage and 70% of U.S. counties don’t have pediatric mental health providers.

Even with the rising cost of care, and assuming one can afford it, what’s one to do if there are not enough clinicians—or even any—in the area? There are excellent options available through multiple digital behavioral health platforms, some of which are specifically designed for children, teens, and young adults. But without a public partner, there’s an issue of equity and access.

This means we must tackle the crisis comprehensively, involving governmental and educational system support and collaboration with tech innovators. In California, everyone 25 years old and younger— some 13 million children, teens, and young adults—now have free access to two digital mental health and wellness apps (including one that we developed) as part of an ambitious $4.7 billion investment in behavioral health. It’s part of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s historic Master Plan for Kids’ Mental Health and the Children and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative (CYBHI).

Gov. Newsom has made children’s mental health a cornerstone of his administration’s agenda, with a particular focus on ensuring equity of access for marginalized communities who face disproportionate barriers to access. This initiative means that every young person in California has the support they need—exactly when and where they need it. It’s a meaningful, impactful demonstration of commitment to addressing the youth mental health crisis and can serve as a blueprint for other state legislatures, departments of health, and boards of education to implement for their young citizens.

The research is clear: Young people need our help—and they need it now. What are we waiting for?

More must-read commentary published by Fortune:

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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