- The Surgeon General has made it clear that social media can be harmful to children and teens.
- Parents are encouraged to create family rules regarding social media use—as they do for many other activities.
- Consider screen-free zones such as at family meals and close to bedtime.
- Parents are encouraged to talk to each other for support and to share strategies for managing social media.
On May 23rd , the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, issued a stark warning to parents about the “profound risk of harm” that social media may have on children’s and adolescents’ mental health. He urged families to do more to protect their children and asked technology companies and governments to set rigid age standards for use.
The advisory noted that the effects of social media use are not fully understood but that there is ample evidence that it can have devastating effects on the mental stability of youth. At the same time, Dr. Murthy shared that social media has benefits to some users.
The Surgeon General’s report made reasonable recommendations to help parents and families determine their own policies for their children’s social media use. The suggestions nicely parallel what most psychologists have been saying for some time. The following tips will focus on what parents and caregivers can be doing and not what suggestions were made for policymakers, technology companies, and governments.
1. Family social media rules. I have always encouraged families to set their own rules about things that are important to them. This might include curfew, bedtime schedules, video game use, and the age at which a child should get their own phone. Social media rules are no different. There are no perfect plans or approaches; each family should adopt rules that make sense to them. The rules should be clear, include family discussions about screen time and education about how to create boundaries on disclosure of personal information online. I have always encouraged parents and caregivers to download and make an account on any social media platform their children want to use. This way they are familiar with it, understand how it works, and become aware of any concerning issues on the site.
2. Build in technology-free times and zones. As part of the family rules about social media, consider times and places where there should be no screen time. I suggest to families that there be no screen time within one hour of bedtime, as there are well-known physiological effects that make it hard to sleep after being exposed to a screen. The times can be adjusted as children get older and demonstrate responsibility in a multitude of ways (grades, effort, kindness, positive attitude, more). One of my other favorite technology-free zones is mealtime. It is a great time to catch up with each other in person and show attention to each other. No cell phones or screens at the table, adults included.
3. Parents and caregivers should model responsible social media use. ‘"Do as I say, not as I do" probably isn’t a great strategy for social media family rules. If you want your children to leave their screens somewhere else during family meals, then you need to follow the same rule. As parents and caregivers, you have the opportunity to set a good example for your children. Modeling of behavior bt parents exerts a strong influence on both children and teens.
4. Talk to other parents and educate each other. Every family will likely set slightly different family rules, but all parents and caregivers benefit from learning from each other. Feel free to ask other parents what they are doing that works or what areas of concern they have. Sometimes there's a new social media platform that many have never heard of but that one set of caregivers has determined is safe or causing problems at their home. Supporting each other can pay big dividends for all.
The Surgeon General’s report on social media goes on to include strategies for reporting online abuse or cyber bullying and strategies for parents to teach their kids more about technology, including the risks and benefits of social media and the importance of privacy. The best advice I have is for parents to have a plan and approach parenting with a strategy for their children’s social media use. Each family is encouraged to set their own rules and strategies, the goal is for the expectations to be clear to everyone.
Social media can be really fun, informative, and inclusive. Used the wrong way, however, it can have a profound influence on self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and host of other mental health concerns.
The Surgeon General’s report can be found at https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/sg-youth-mental-health-social-media-advisory.pdf.
Social Media and Youth Mental Health: The Surgeon General’s Advisory (May 23, 2023).