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What You Need to Know About Protecting Children and Teens from Social Media

By Pam Dewey • social media and teens, social media and children, social media limits for teens, social media use for teens, limiting social media for teens, social media impact on young people, does social media harm teens, social media impacts, social media protections, social media and kids, social media and teen mental health, social media and childrens mental health • July 06, 2023

Think about how you start the day: your phone alarm sounds, and you turn it off, but notice a text message from a friend. You reply, and then see a notification on your favorite social media app. You click, and then 15 minutes later, realize you’re still scrolling. It’s an all too common phenomenon.

Social media has become a daily part of most people’s lives. It has benefits — like connecting with others and promoting a business — but there are also drawbacks, like constantly comparing yourself to others, cyberbullying and wasting time. For children and young people, the impact is particularly concerning. Psychology Today states that the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy recently “issued an advisory about the impact of social media on the mental health of children and adolescents.” Here’s what you need to know about protecting your children from the harmful effects of social media.

Most young people use social media

In 2021, according to the Pew Research Center, about 81% of 30-49-year-olds used social media in the U.S. That’s a large part of this population, but the numbers are even higher for teens. According to the “Social Media and Youth Mental Health” advisory from the surgeon general, “Up to 95% of youth ages 13–17 report using a social media platform, with more than a third saying they use social media ‘almost constantly.’” While most platforms restrict use to those 13 and older, “nearly 40% of children ages 8–12 use social media.” And as these children get older, we can only assume that more will use these platforms.

Using social media may change a young person’s brain

As children grow and develop, so do their brains, and what they’re exposed to on social media may have a profound impact. The surgeon general’s advisory states, “Furthermore, in early adolescence, when identities and sense of self-worth are forming, brain development is especially susceptible to social pressures, peer opinions, and peer comparison.” Social media is filled with opportunities for self-comparison. Young people can compare themselves to friends, models, strangers across the globe and images so photoshopped they barely resemble the person.

The advisory also states, “Frequent social media use may be associated with distinct changes in the developing brain in the amygdala (important for emotional learning and behavior) and the prefrontal cortex (important for impulse control, emotional regulation, and moderating social behavior), and could increase sensitivity to social rewards and punishments. As such, adolescents may experience heightened emotional sensitivity to the communicative and interactive nature of social media.” Social media may affect young people’s ability to regulate emotions, control impulses and act appropriately in social situations. It can also make them more sensitive to what they encounter online.

Social media use can increase depression

Teens are already facing a tumult of emotions as their bodies grow and change, which makes them particularly vulnerable to negativity. Since many teens are “almost constantly” online, negativity on social media may significantly impact their mental health. The surgeon general’s advisory states, “A longitudinal cohort study of U.S. adolescents aged 12–15 that adjusted for baseline mental health status found that adolescents who spent more than 3 hours per day on social media faced double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes including symptoms of depression and anxiety.” Another experiment following U.S. college students showed similar results, “the roll-out of the [social media] platform was associated with an increase in depression (9% over baseline) and anxiety (12% over baseline) among college-aged youth. The study’s co-author also noted that when applied across the entirety of the U.S. college population, the introduction of the social media platform may have contributed to more than 300,000 new cases of depression.” The more time teens and young people spend online, the more likely they are to encounter upsetting content, and the more likely they are to face anxiety and depression.

People of color face even more harmful content

Young people are also exposed to hate speech online. Teens of color and LGBTQ+ young people are more likely to encounter hate speech. The surgeon general’s advisory states, “Among adolescent girls of color, one-third or more report exposure to racist content or language on social media platforms. In a review of 36 studies, a consistent relationship was found between cyberbullying via social media and depression among children and adolescents, with adolescent females and sexual minority youth more likely to report experiencing incidents of cyberbullying.” Not surprisingly, racist and homophobic language negatively impacts LGBTQ+ youth and young people of color’s mental health.

Social media can have positive impacts

Not all social media interactions are negative. There are reasons people return to these sites over and over again. The surgeon general’s advisory states, “The buffering effects against stress that online social support from peers may provide can be especially important for youth who are often marginalized, including racial, ethnic, and sexual and gender minorities.” Social media is a place for marginalized people to connect with each other. This can be helpful for those who live in rural areas and lack community; people with disabilities who aren’t as mobile and people with autism who struggle with social skills.

Social media also connects people to mental health resources. The surgeon general’s advisory states, “In addition, research suggests that social media-based and other digitally-based mental health interventions may also be helpful for some children and adolescents by promoting help-seeking behaviors and serving as a gateway to initiating mental health care.” In other words, social media mental health resources can encourage young people to seek help. It’s also a good way to reach marginalized groups like LGBTQ+, gender diverse teens, young people of color and youth with disabilities.

Social media can provide connection for teens on the spectrum

As previously mentioned, some individuals with autism may prefer to connect on social media. Social media removes some social barriers for people with autism. They aren’t being bombarded with sensory input and aren’t trying to read subtle body language cues that they may find confusing.  

However, young people with autism shouldn’t rely solely on this social interaction. Psychology Today states, “More than 70% of autistic youth have mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. Excessive or problematic use of social media could trigger or exacerbate these vulnerabilities to mental health conditions in autistic children and adolescents.” Again, social media can help people form connections, but overuse can harm mental health.

Set social media rules for your kids

Social media encourages people to keep scrolling and engaging with content. That’s why setting limits is important. Setting screen time limits on phones, tablets and computers shuts down apps when your child reaches the set amount of time each day. You should also talk with your children about appropriate content and why they shouldn’t share certain personal information online. You may also restrict your child’s access to certain sites.

Teach them about appropriate online behavior

Talk to your kids about what they’re looking at online. Teach them how to find reliable sources, show them what harmful content is, and educate them about how to act appropriately toward others online. Psychology Today states, “Educate your child about the potential harms of social media, such as how to recognize negative and inappropriate content, including cyberbullying and deception, and the importance of never disclosing personal information online. Explain in simple terms what bullying is, using role-playing and concrete examples.”

Report inappropriate behavior

Encourage your child to come to you if they’re bullied online. If it’s a classmate, you can report it to their school, the social media platform itself or local law enforcement, in extreme cases. If your child faces sexual exploitation online, like having inappropriate pictures posted, you can report it to CyberTipline.org, run by the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children. Take it Down is another website dedicated to getting explicit photos of people under 18 removed from the internet.  

Model appropriate behavior

Teach your children to form healthy social media habits by modeling this behavior. When you talk to your children, put your phone down and give them your undivided attention. This shows kids it’s important to talk to people face to face and demonstrates that you value your conversations with them. Ask for permission before you share photos or stories about your children online. This teaches them about boundaries and helps them understand what is appropriate to post.

According to Greater Good Magazine, a survey of 400 parents of children ages five to 12 found, “Of all the measures included, the only one that was associated with lower child emotional intelligence was parental use of cell phones in the presence of their children.” In other words, when parents are always on their phones, it can decrease a child’s emotional intelligence, which is their ability to understand and manage their feelings and interpret the feelings of others. It also shows a lack of engagement with kids, suggesting parents are less interested in their children than in what’s happening on their phones. The Greater Good Magazine also states, “The takeaway is for parents to be more mindful of how often they are using their phones around their children…Where their eyes are sends a message to their children about what’s important.”

Most teens use social media, and they use it a lot. While social media can provide important connections for young with autism and disabilities, as well as young people of color and LGBTQ+ youth, it can also expose them to a lot of negativity and hate speech. Social media use can also change young people’s brains and increase their risk for anxiety and depression. Until more regulations are in place, it’s up to parents to teach young people about using social media appropriately. This can include setting screen time limits, restricting access to some content, discussing what it’s suitable to share online, reporting bullying together, and modeling healthy social media use for kids.