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What Tech Companies Can Do to Support Parents and Teens

Implications of new research on teens, mental health, and tech usage.

Key points

  • In a survey of over 4,000 adolescents and their parents, the majority of teens reported positive health indicators in relationship to tech usage.
  • The same survey revealed a minority of teens who experienced negative outcomes in relationship to tech usage.
  • Tech companies need to support families of vulnerable youth in order to maximize the benefits of tech and media while reducing its harms.

Recently, the American Psychological Association, along with an impressive list of co-signatories, wrote a letter to the Surgeon General asking for a public education campaign about the dangers that social media poses to adolescents. The public conversation about it is also quite prevalent. In fact, if you put the term "social media harms" into Google, 69 million entries come up.

We have been studying social media and adolescence, and sharing research with parents, since 2008. Dr. Moreno wrote the American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on media and adolescents, while I wrote a book about parenting in the digital age. We believe that the current conversation around social media risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater, with a one-size-fits-all solution (e.g. remove all adolescents off social media until 18, etc.). Research finds that the effects differ depending on the individual child, and that many factors might come into play, including the child’s age and stage.

Risks and benefits of tech usage are not evenly distributed

We just published a study that provides further evidence that the risks and benefits of technology use are not equally distributed across adolescents. We surveyed over 4,000 adolescents (13-18 years), and their parents and asked about both well-being and risky behaviors, as well as parent involvement. The answers were then analyzed so we could see if different groups of adolescents emerged based on common patterns in behavior.

And we did find two distinct groups. One group was the majority, and they seemed to be doing just fine, with positive health and well-being indicators in relationship to technology. A key factor was how they engaged with their parents in relationship to technology. For example, this group reported that they had strict rules about the kinds of content they accessed rather than strict time rules. This finding is important, as it echoes what the AAP and many other experts have been advising parents for years—that content is just as important, if not more important than how much time a child spends with media. Other findings also match years of recommendations by parenting experts, such as role modeling (parents with kids who thrived posted less on their own social media), and focusing on communication (parents in this group had active conversations with their kids).

The other group was more problematic, however, with negative factors in relationship to technology and other health behaviors. For example, they slept less and reported higher levels of anxiety and poor body image. Technology was clearly a factor in these outcomes, but equally important were the family behaviors. In this group, parents had strict time rules but did not report strict content rules—the exact opposite of the first group. Parents in this group also used social media more frequently, while the teens reported low communication with their parents, about screen time and more generally.

Funny enough, these findings fall into line with research from Vicki Rideout, a well-respected expert with decades of studying media from way back before social media was even invented. In a nationally representative sample, she found that 17% of adolescents said that Facebook made them feel worse while 43% said it made them feel better. And even Facebook’s own research, via the report that the whistleblower Frances Haugen shared with the world, aligns with these numbers. They found that about 19% of US teens said Instagram makes them feel worse, while 41% said it makes them feel better.

How tech companies can support youth and their families

Given the convergence of several unlikely sources of data, including ours, we feel it’s time to shift the conversation to focus on the smaller group of vulnerable youth and their families, who are clearly struggling. What might this mean?

We call on tech companies to prioritize these youth and their health and well-being. We need to help the adults in their lives understand their role in how technology might be impacting them. Tech companies must invest in supporting youth and create resources for parents so they can learn to more effectively communicate with the youth in their lives.

Here are a few specific ways we feel we can maximize the benefits of tech and media for the majority of youth who clearly are thriving, and minimize the harm for the others:

  • Educate technology developers with research-informed training on the range of needs of the youth that will use their products.
  • Support digital parenting by reworking parental controls to focus less on restrictions and provide new resources to parents, such as communication tools to foster discussion about content, household guidelines, and ongoing communication.
  • Incorporate wellness checks and content guidelines directly into the technology platforms adolescents engage with.
  • Provide youth more agency and flexibility in accessing the content they want to see, rather than prioritizing content by popularity or profit margin.

Of course, parents have a role here, but many are overwhelmed or confused. If tech companies work to support them, we can finally take advantage of the many benefits media and technology have to offer.

Thus, we agree with the current calls to the Surgeon General and others to provide public education about the risks of media. We further argue that to be effective, this education also needs to include evidence of the benefits of media, and best practices to support youth and their families in navigating today's digital world.

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