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Seven Evidence-Based Ways to Teach Your Child About Social Media

The research behind social media and teenagers and how to teach responsible use.

Key points

  • Research finds an association between social media use and symptoms of anxiety/depression and body image issues in teenagers.
  • Yet, research also suggests that social media provides some important benefits to teenagers.
  • Parents should be less worried about whether their children use social media and more concerned about how their children use social media.
  • Parents can teach their children to responsibly use social media in a way that reduces their risk of negative outcomes.

In recent news, a whistleblower from Facebook reported on some findings related to social media and teenagers. While this report is concerning, the data she reported on involved small sample sizes and flawed research methods (self-report, non-random sampling, etc.). The higher-quality, peer-reviewed research we have on this topic is decidedly more nuanced and complex.

In line with this report, a large body of research does find associations between social media use and increased symptoms of anxiety and depression and greater risk for body dissatisfaction and disordered eating among teenage girls. These associations are particularly apparent for apps involving primarily images and videos, such as Instagram, Snapchat, or TikTok. These effects are more substantial when these apps are used for 2 hours or more per day. Simply looking at attractive pictures of celebrities or even peers on social media has an immediate impact on mood and body image on female undergraduates.

Because people present an “idealized image” of themselves on social media, users then compare it to their own real or perceived body image and are likely to feel more negatively about their body image. Yet, the negative impact may also extend to posting your image or video content. A recent randomized controlled trial found that posting a selfie (whether filtered or not) increases anxiety and lower self-confidence in young women.

However, social media isn’t all negative for teenagers (or for any of us). Research finds that social media provides some essential benefits to teenagers, including being a platform for emotional support and information on mental health and providing social support for marginalized teens such as transgender youth. Research also finds that social media use is associated with decreased feelings of loneliness. Specifically, 43% of young people report that they get support from social media and 45% of young people report that they feel less alone due to social media. In addition, looking at body-positive images on social media may improve mood and body image.

It is also very important to note that it remains unclear whether social media increases mental health concerns or mental health issues increase the use of social media. More recent research provides some evidence for the latter. Specifically, a recent study found that increased social media use did not predict increased symptoms of depression, but increased symptoms of depression did predict increased social media use among both teenagers and undergraduate students.

In summary, it is clear from the research that you should be less worried about whether your teenager uses social media and more worried about how your teenager uses social media. The following evidence-based strategies may help you to teach your teenager to use social media responsibly and in a way that reduces the risk of negative outcomes.

  1. Explain to your teenagers that social media is the “highlight reel” and show them pictures of real people before and after applying filters or particular lighting or angles. Research finds that this type of “social media literacy” reduces the risk for body image issues and disordered eating.
  2. Because increased time on social media is associated with increased mental health and body image concerns, limit your child’s time on social media. Research finds that two hours or more per day on social media are associated with more negative outcomes. You can set these limits through a parental control app, a setting on your child’s smartphone, or clear family rules (which are generated together and agreed upon as a family).
  3. Ask your child to honestly assess how they feel before and after scrolling social media. Go through who your child is following with them and ask them how each account makes them feel. Then go through your list with your child and cut any accounts that make you feel worse.
  4. Do not allow your child to be on social media if they are under 13. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act prohibits children under 13 from being on social media apps.
  5. Create family rules around phones and other devices that everyone in the family must follow (for example, no phones at the dinner table or in the bedroom). The American Academy of Pediatrics has a tool to create a Family Media Plan on their website. This tool can help you generate these rules and then print them up so family members can refer to them as needed.
  6. Model appropriate use of your phone and social media. If you struggle with your use of social media from time to time, explain this struggle to your child and the strategies you use to overcome it effectively.
  7. Have ongoing conversations with your teenager about how to use social media safely. Turn on all possible privacy settings and emphasize the importance of not sharing personal information on social media or having any contacts online that you do not know personally.


References

Sampasa-Kanyinga, H., & Lewis, R. F. (2015). Frequent use of social networking sites is associated with poor psychological functioning among children and adolescents. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 18(7), 380-385.

Rideout, V., & Fox, S. (2018). Digital health practices, social media use, and mental well-being among teens and young adults in the US.

Pretorius, K., Johnson, K. E., & Rew, L. (2019). An integrative review: understanding parental use of social media to influence infant and child health. Maternal and child health journal, 23(10), 1360-1370.

Odgers, C. L., & Jensen, M. R. (2020). Annual Research Review: Adolescent mental health in the digital age: facts, fears, and future directions. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 61(3), 336-348.

Mills, J. S., Musto, S., Williams, L., & Tiggemann, M. (2018). “Selfie” harm: Effects on mood and body image in young women. Body image, 27, 86-92.

Brown, Z., & Tiggemann, M. (2016). Attractive celebrity and peer images on Instagram: Effect on women's mood and body image. Body image, 19, 37-43.

Marengo, D., Longobardi, C., Fabris, M. A., & Settanni, M. (2018). Highly-visual social media and internalizing symptoms in adolescence: The mediating role of body image concerns. Computers in Human Behavior, 82, 63-69.

Meier, E. P., & Gray, J. (2014). Facebook photo activity associated with body image disturbance in adolescent girls. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 17(4), 199-206.

Tiggemann, M., & Miller, J. (2010). The Internet and adolescent girls’ weight satisfaction and drive for thinness. Sex roles, 63(1-2), 79-90.

Holland, G., & Tiggemann, M. (2016). A systematic review of the impact of the use of social networking sites on body image and disordered eating outcomes. Body image, 17, 100-110.

Magis‐Weinberg, L., Gys, C. L., Berger, E. L., Domoff, S. E., & Dahl, R. E. (2021). Positive and negative online experiences and loneliness in Peruvian adolescents during the COVID‐19 lockdown. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 31(3), 717-733.

Cohen, R., Irwin, L., Newton-John, T., & Slater, A. (2019). # bodypositivity: A content analysis of body positive accounts on Instagram. Body image, 29, 47-57.

Heffer, T., Good, M., Daly, O., MacDonell, E., & Willoughby, T. (2019). The longitudinal association between social-media use and depressive symptoms among adolescents and young adults: An empirical reply to Twenge et al.(2018). Clinical Psychological Science, 7(3), 462-470.

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