- A new report concludes that using social media is not inherently beneficial or harmful to young people.
- Researchers recommend that social media use be preceded by training in social media literacies.
- Youth should be encouraged to use social media functions that encourage opportunities for social support and healthy socialization.
- Design features should be tailored to the developmental capabilities of young people.
Like most adults, I worry about kids on screens. In late 2021, when U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued the warning that “[m]ental health challenges were leading to ‘devasting effects’ among young people,” my mind flew directly to screen use. It seemed like the obvious, and expedient, explanation for this problem.
But critical problems like this one deserve more than expedient explanations—otherwise, we end up with lazy solutions. If you’ve been following the news, then you know that at least two states, so far, have passed laws banning teens from social media until they are 18, unless they have parental consent. Problem identified, problem solved, right? But it's just not as simple as that.
This week, the American Psychological Association published the report: “Health Advisory on Social Media Use in Adolescence.” Based on the scientific evidence to date, it offers 10 recommendations to safeguard teens. Notably, on the first page, the report states: “Using social media is not inherently beneficial or harmful to young people.”
While this might come as a surprise to many, it won’t be to those who have been following the research instead of the headlines. According to this report, “the effects of social media are dependent on adolescents’ own personal and psychological characteristics and social circumstances— intersecting with the specific content, features, or functions that are afforded within many social media platforms.”
Further, researchers emphasize that teens have the ability to “shape their own social media experiences,” but that it is incumbent upon us to teach them how to do this. One of the 10 recommendations is that social media use should be “preceded by training in social media literacies,” a recommendation many of us have been shouting from the rooftops for years.
Here is a summary of the report’s recommendations:
1. Youth should be encouraged to use functions that create opportunities for social support, online companionship, and emotional intimacy that can promote healthy socialization.
Many young people struggling with mental health or identity issues turn online for support from peers, to connect with others with similar struggles, or to find resources. For young people who do not have the support of a parent, caregiver, or other trusted adult, social media provides an important place for them to do this.
Even for youth without these struggles, social media can connect them with like-minded teens who they may not have the opportunity to meet in “real” life. Take, for example, #BookTok. This is one of the most popular hashtags on TikTok, connecting users who share a passion for reading. As of late 2022, it had amassed over 77 billion views globally. In fact, TikTok recently added a new feature that allows users to link to favorite books within their videos, with these links going to a dedicated page with details about the book and other videos linked to the same title.
2. Design features (such as like buttons, recommended content, etc.) should be tailored to youths’ developmental capabilities.
Researchers recommend that teens should be informed “explicitly and repeatedly” how their behaviors on social media “may yield data that can be used, stored or shared with others.” While this, again, underscores the need for education in digital literacy, it should not release social media companies from a responsibility to consider the vulnerabilities of youth when they create these design features.
Some states are holding them accountable for this. California, for example, was the first state to sign the “Age-Appropriate Design Code Act” into law. Among other things, it will require social media companies to “use child-friendly language for all privacy information, terms of service, policies, and community standards.”
3. Adult monitoring is advised in early adolescence (10-14 years) with increased autonomy as kids age and if they gain digital literacy skills.
According to the report, “preliminary research suggests that a combination of 1) social media limits and boundaries, and 2) adult–child discussion and coaching, leads to the best outcomes for youth.” Additionally, researchers suggest that “monitoring should be balanced” with a teen’s need for privacy. This stands in stark contrast to the Utah ban which requires that parents be given access to their children’s accounts.
4. Exposure to content that instructs or encourages health-risk behaviors, such as self-harm (e.g., cutting, suicide), harm to others, or those that encourage eating-disordered behavior (e.g., restrictive eating, purging, excessive exercise) should be minimized, reported, and removed and technology should not drive users to this content.
This recommendation falls squarely upon the shoulders of social media companies. Protecting youth from encountering any of this harmful content should, frankly, be a top priority.
5. Exposure to “cyberhate” should be minimized.
While cyberbullying receives most of the attention when it comes to online harms, “cyberhate” is spreading more rapidly among young people. “Cyberhate” or “online hate speech” is any communication that is aggressive, degrading, or discriminatory against a person or group of people based on identity traits or characteristics they are born with or into.
According to a 2021 U.S. Government Accountability Office report, roughly 1 in 4 students between ages 12 and 18 who experienced bullying were targeted because of their race, national origin, religion, disability, gender, or sexual orientation. In 2021, the FBI reported an 11.6 percent increase in hate crime incidents in the United States compared with the year before.
The report suggests that “exposure to online discrimination and hate predicts increases in anxiety and depressive symptoms, even after controlling for how much adolescents are exposed to similar experiences offline."
Remaining recommendations include: Screening teens routinely for “problematic social media use” (notably, researchers did not use the word “addiction”); ensuring social media does not interfere with sleep and physical activity; refraining from using social media for social comparison, particularly around beauty and appearance.
The report concludes with the call for education that would ensure “users have developed psychologically-informed competencies and skills that will maximize the chances for balanced, safe, and meaningful social media use.” And finally recommends that “[s]ubstantial resources should be provided for continued scientific examination of the positive and negative effects of social media on adolescent development."
We Can Do This
All of the above is doable; however, it requires a concerted effort between social media companies, lawmakers, parents, schools, and even teens themselves. But focusing on teens themselves may be our best bet.
In “Why Proposed Social Media Bans Won’t Keep Your Kids Safe,” Dr. Pamela Rutledge asserts, “If improving the mental health of kids is the goal, the proposed bans not only won't get the job done but can cause more harm than good by taking our eyes off what really matters: teaching our kids to be media literate, responsible digital citizens.” Amen.
Health Advisory on Social Media Use in Adolescence. (2023). American Psychological Association.
Wachs S, Costello M, Wright MF, et al. “DNT LET ’EM H8 U!”: Applying the routine activity framework to understand cyberhate victimization among adolescents across eight countries. Comput Educ. 2021;160:104026. doi: 10.1016/j. compedu.2020.104026
Tools and tips to help communicate safely online about suicide - #chatsafe - Orygen, Revolution in Mind. (n.d.). Www.orygen
Tynes BM, Giang MT, Williams DR, Thompson GN. Online racial discrimination and psychological adjustment among adolescents. J Adolesc Health. 2008;43(6):565-569. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2008.08.021