The American Psychological Association recently released, for the first time, a health advisory and set of recommendations designed to guide teens’ social media use.
The 10 recommendations are meant to offer some clarity and direction at a time when many teens across the country are in crisis, impacted by high rates of depression, anxiety and loneliness, some of which can be traced to the concurrent rise in social media usage. Estimates show that 50% of kids have social media by age 12.
Compiled by an expert advisory panel, the guidelines are geared toward teens, parents, teachers and policy makers, but seem to place much of the onus on parents to take action, including training teens in social media literacy before they even sign up for an account, monitoring their child’s feeds once they do, and even assessing parents’ own social media use as a way to model good behavior.
Though that burden may seem unfair, it’s unavoidable that parents serve as the gatekeepers for their children’s social media use. “As stated in the considerations for the recommendations, adolescents ‘mature at different rates,’ says Anna B. Tanner, MD, FAAP, FSAHM, CEDS-S, vice president of Child and Adolescent Medicine with Veritas Collaborative and the Emily Program.
“Parents know this and they know their teens best. When parents can provide individualized, developmentally appropriate supervision, they can facilitate social media education in the context of their own child’s maturity and development, as well as mental health status. The importance of healthy social media use will be a major role for all parents in the digital age,” Dr. Tanner says.
Teen social media use: Neither beneficial nor harmful
The recommendations APA makes are based on a set of considerations, compiled from a review of the scientific literature to date. The first consideration asserts that “using social media is not inherently beneficial or harmful to young people.”
Essentially, some users are more vulnerable than others to the aspects of social media that can influence healthy development. Of course, our online experiences are simultaneously affected by “visible and unknown features built into the platforms,” the authors note, like algorithms, which influence the posts users see—and are hardly neutral.
But social media is not wholly without potential benefits. APA notes that teens who use social media “should be encouraged to use functions that create opportunities for social support, online companionship, and emotional intimacy that can promote healthy socialization,” adding that evidence suggests some teens may benefit from this type of online social interaction, especially when they’re feeling isolated, stressed, or seeking connection to peers with similar developmental and/or health conditions. It may be especially helpful for those who experience adversity or isolation in offline environments.
Of course, where social media can be a lifeline, it can also be fraught with risks of psychological and self-harm, as well as exposure to hate and discrimination. Algorithms can often have centuries of racist policy and discrimination encoded, the organization states.
Evidence also points to the fact that social media can become an incubator, “providing community and training that fuel racist hate. The resulting potential impact is far reaching, including physical violence offline, as well as threats to well-being.” The APA also recommends that content depicting or encouraging “psychologically maladaptive behavior,” including self-harm and eating disordered behaviors, should be minimized, reported and removed.
But does that go far enough? “This is a good first step, unfortunately, it relies on the creation of a reporting structure that does not currently exist,” notes Dr. Tanner. “It also hinges upon adequate identification and reporting by users, which means in many cases, children will see this content first and need to bring these concerning posts to the attention of their parents. This current structure is fraught with risk for harm. The only way to minimize exposure is close parental supervision of social media content access.” Even with oversight, it’s hard to see everything your kids are exposed to.
Spotting problematic social media usage
That’s why having an ongoing conversation with teens about safe social media use, privacy and digital literacy is paramount, as is continuing to monitor teens’ feeds for inappropriate content—and their mental health.
But that puts a lot of pressure on parents, and assumes that parents have the time and mental bandwidth to spend educating themselves first and their teens second on how to safely use social media—and then worrying about the mental health impacts of that social media use until their teens have reached full brain maturity (which APA says is age 25).
To help identify a mental health issue, APA outlines signs of problematic social media use and calls for regular screenings.
According to APA, indicators of problematic social media use include:
- A tendency to use social media even when adolescents want to stop, or realize it is interfering with necessary tasks
- Spending excessive effort to ensure continuous access to social media
- Strong cravings to use social media, or disruptions in other activities from missing social media use too much
- Repeatedly spending more time on social media than intended
- Lying or deceptive behavior to retain access to social media use
- Loss or disruption of significant relationships or educational opportunities because of media use
It’s when social media creeps into teens’ offline lives that usage might be considered problematic. “I would add that changes in personality, in-person relationships, and school performance may also be indicators of a problem that exists and that it may stem from social media use or be worsened by the use of social media,” says Dr. Tanner.
As a parent, being faced with these risks is daunting. But it’s not that different from preparing your child for the world at large in other ways, notes Dr. Tanner. “Parents understand that many of the tasks their adolescent children must master include some danger of harm, such as driving. With individualized and developmentally appropriate supervision, this potential for harm may be mitigated but will never be completely eliminated.”
But until there’s a driver’s ed for social media literacy, parents are for the most part still left to their own devices when it comes to preparing their kids for using these ever-changing platforms. Teaching media and digital literacy in schools may help take some of the onus off parents, but we ultimately need more support from tech companies and oversight from policy makers to help keep kids safe.
“It’s a little hard for me to imagine that these recommendations can be implemented without coordination with big tech companies or even regulations through congress,” says Kameron Mendes, a therapist at Walden Behavioral Care, to NPR. “So while it’s a great start, I think we still have a long way to go before it trickles down to real change.”