- Social media can shape kids' ideas and bias their thinking while their brains are still developing.
- To regulate teens' social media time, parents must create an environment that prioritizes life offline.
- Teen-facing tech companies should be part of the solution by prioritizing teen wellbeing from the beginning.
Just in time for Mental Health Awareness Month, two sets of guidelines were recently released about teen social media use: first, the American Psychological Association’s Health Advisory, and shortly after, The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory from Vivek Murthy’s office. Both reports acknowledged that social media is not inherently good or bad—but it is becoming clear that some teens have experiences that can really damage their social and emotional health during a critical age for their self-confidence, values, and social connections.
Social media is a topic that often makes parents feel out of control, so I was heartened to see some clear actions we can take at home to protect and support our kids. The Surgeon General’s Advisory took it a step further, also sharing how social media companies can be part of the solution.
What can parents do at home?
Be aware that social media exposes kids to material before they’re developmentally ready.
For younger adolescents between 10 and 14 years old, social media can shape their ideas and bias their thinking while their brains are still developing. The teen brain is already primed to attend to social information, which is why peer relationships are so important during the teen years. The social media “like” button can cause the adolescent brain to attend even more strongly to social information.
A recent study showed high amounts of stimulation for posts with many likes and less stimulation for posts with fewer likes. The teen brain is reinforced to pay attention to and spread images with more likes, perpetuating the idea that likes matter more than developing one’s own opinion. In addition to being swayed by content with more likes, teens can feel devastated when their own posts don’t perform well.
Know that social media can fuel misinformation, racism, and hatred.
Algorithms facilitate misinformation and age-old racist ideas and stereotypes. Research now shows that teens are more susceptible to the spread of misinformation than adults—they find it harder to separate the real from the fake. One study showed that 52 percent of teens judged fake news to be either as trustworthy as or more trustworthy than real news. Similarly, when our kids search online or on social media for terms related to gender or ethnic groups, they are served up stereotypical material that is extremely biased against groups that are not white, cisgender, or male. In her book, Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Umoja Noble describes a pattern of “data discrimination” that’s biased against people of color, and particularly women of color. It’s up to us to share this with our adolescents, especially younger ones, so they know that the information they see online can be false and even harmful.
Help your teens connect with the world outside of social media.
Teens struggle to regulate their own social media time—it’s up to parents to create an environment that prioritizes life offline. Consider having screen-free time, promoting physical activity, getting outside, and supporting healthy sleep (without devices in the bedroom). Need convincing? One study found a clear link between parental rules limiting social media use before bed and healthy adolescent sleep. The sooner social media limits and healthy behaviors are supported, the stronger these habits will become. Teens need to have a strong foundation in place for when they have their own device and the responsibility that comes with it.
Check your own use.
Just like with alcohol use and many other behaviors, kids get their early ideas about what’s appropriate from their parents. If we’re on our phones looking at social media all the time, we’re showing our kids that we find it valuable. When we’re distracted from our family and scrolling online, we show them it’s okay for them to do that, too.
Does that mean parents can’t use social media? Not exactly. In fact, a recent study showed that parents who are more actively engaged in social media themselves (like content creators) are actually more likely to have clear rules, conversations, and boundaries when it comes to their children’s social media use. Rather than avoiding social media, we need to focus on having clear conversations and setting healthy examples.
And again: Start as early as you can. If kids have more information and guidance before owning their own device, it’s much easier for them to make healthy decisions.
How can teen-facing tech companies be part of the solution?
Design for adolescents from the start.
Designing collaboratively with teens helps us make digital tools with their needs and best interests at heart. At UCSF, my lab conducted a study using social media to learn more about how older adolescents would like smoking cessation programs to be designed. We gathered information about how to create a clinical intervention that would speak directly to and resonate with today’s youth.
In contrast to this approach, most social media companies are focused on a different set of stakeholders. Having teens involved in designing the digital tools they use would go a long way toward supporting their well-being rather than harming it.
Follow guidelines designed to support adolescent safety and development.
There are high-quality guidelines for how social media and other youth-centric digital services can be designed to prioritize safety and support developmentally-appropriate interactions. For example, the UK-based age-appropriate design code offers guidelines for how to design internet-based platforms to protect youth safety. The Surgeon General's Advisory outlines additional “safety by design” practices for companies to follow.
When companies prioritize teen safety from the beginning, they create offerings that are more likely to support healthy teen interactions and minimize harm.
As a researcher, clinician, and parent myself, I am relieved to see both the American Psychological Association and U.S. Surgeon General sounding the alarm about social media use and its impact on today’s teens. We need to have a clear and nuanced conversation about how time online can help or harm our children.
As a parent, you can educate your teen about misinformation, help them value their lives offline, and lead by example. And social media companies can and should hold teen wellness as a critical pillar of their design. In order to keep teens safe online, both parents and teen-facing tech companies have a critical role to play.
American Psychological Association. (2023, May). Health Advisory on social media use in adolescence. https://www.apa.org/topics/social-media-internet/health-advisory-adoles…
Barnes, C., & Wills, M. (2021, May 14). The importance of Mental Health Awareness Month. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mental-illness-in-america/20210…
Information Commissioner’s Office. (n.d.). Age appropriate design: A code of practice for online services. https://ico.org.uk/for-organisations/uk-gdpr-guidance-and-resources/chi…
Lin, M.-H., Vijayalakshmi, A., & Laczniak, R. (2019). Toward an understanding of parental views and actions on social media influencers targeted at adolescents: The roles of parents’ social media use and empowerment. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02664
Noble, S. (2018). Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York, USA: New York University Press. https://doi.org/10.18574/nyu/9781479833641.001.0001
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