In May 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General declared a youth mental health crisis, citing social media as the primary driving factor. This could be a frightening statement for any parent. Luckily, psychologists and other researchers have been investigating social media's potential benefits and harmful effects. Let's look at what the research actually says.
Does the research show that social media is causing a mental health crisis in adolescents?
Social media usage is not inherently beneficial or harmful to youth. Although the research shows that there is a correlation between lower mental health in teens and social media use, there are very limited studies, to date, that show a direct causation. In other words, several factors influence social media's effects on adolescents' mental health.
Imagine this equation:
Social media content, features, and functions + Teens' pre-existing strengths, vulnerabilities, and context in which they grew up,( i.e., values, ideologies, family dynamics) = Effects of social media on adolescent's mental health
At what age should we give kids access to social media?
There is no concrete age. The reason is that adolescent development occurs gradually and is continuous--starting with observable biological and neurological changes around the age of 10 and continuing through approximately 25-30. Therefore, social media use should be based on maturity levels and home environment. The potential risks of social media practice are likely more significant in early adolescence.
Are there any benefits to social media?
Despite the risks of social media use, there are some benefits. Social media platforms allow individuals to connect with friends or develop new friendships. Similarly, social media platforms offer spaces for social support, expose children to different cultures and other variables that can encourage self-identity exploration, allow kids to discover new interests, and even participate in civic engagement.
What are the recommendations for social media for kids and teens?
1. Adult coaching is vital.
Begin coaching your child about social media when they are 8-9 years old. This is not the same as allowing them to use it. It means you are having open discussions with them about how social media should be used. As pre-adolescents transition into their adolescent journey, adults should continue to help grow their social media literacy. Kids should learn how to question the accuracy and representativeness of social media content, understand that tactics are used to overgeneralize or disseminate misinformation, identify signs of problematic social media use, and comprehend how social media content and images influence social comparisons.
2. Clearly explain your family's view on social media.
When introducing your child to social media, thoroughly explain your beliefs about how social media should be used. Research shows that the emphasis of its use should be the development of their own healthy socialization.
3. Tailor the functionalities and explain the implications.
Take the time to explain to your child what each feature means, such as the "like" button. Discuss why it is important to have restricted time limits and why endless scrolling is unfavorable. Similarly, be mindful of who receives the notices and alerts, including changes to privacy policies or consents. Lastly, make your child explicitly aware of how their social media behavior will be used as data that can be stored or shared with others.
4. Limit exposure to harmful content.
Supervising adults should access the settings on each social platform to limit the content to which the child is exposed. Here is a helpful and practical guide on how to restrict access to harmful content: https://www.rainn.org/articles/how-filter-block-and-report-harmful-content-social-media
Again, monitoring and continuously discussing online content with your children also reduces the effects of exposure to harmful content.
5. Demonstrate healthy use of social media.
Ask your child what they think about your social media use. Are you demonstrating excessive use? Is social media interfering with your ability to be present? Can you try to be an example of how often and in what way you would like them to use social media?
6. Introduce social media as a de-prioritized activity.
Clarify priorities. Priority activities are subjective to your family's values and beliefs but may include reading, exercising, spending in-person time with friends and family, and completing academic work. Of course, sleeping and eating should be demonstrated and explicitly explained as the most critical means of supporting positive mental health development.
Social media awareness, open conversation, and a firm, clear set of rules are great starting points for healthy online interactions.
Dr. Carol Chu-Peralta, Ph.D.
Founder, Clinical Director, & Psychologist
Dr. Chu-Peralta is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in NJ and NY. She specializes in the provision of trauma, depression, and anxiety therapy treatment, as well as trauma-based evaluations and supervision.
As pre-adolescents transition into their adolescent journey, adults should continue to help grow their social media literacy.