One of the biggest concerns parents have is how to help their children navigate social media. It’s not surprising this is a question front and center in our minds. A recent Pew Research Center report found that over a third of teens say they spend “too much time” on social media, and over a third of teens say they are using social media platforms like TikTok “almost constantly.”
Questions about social media use in children are also top of mind for the United States Surgeon General and the American Psychological Association (APA), who both released advisories recently to heighten the public’s awareness of the challenges social media pose to youth and to provide guidance on how to address them.
We spoke to Jacqueline Nesi, professor at Brown University, a member of the National Scientific Council on Adolescence, and a member of the APA’s expert advisory panel, to discuss the key takeaways from both reports. Nesi’s research focuses on how social media influences adolescents’ mental health, which she writes about in her weekly newsletter Techno Sapiens.
Her insights suggest that social media isn’t always bad for teens. Nesi highlights parenting skills like having open communication, monitoring, setting boundaries, and modeling as ways to help our children navigate social media so that it can be a healthy part of their lives. What’s more, she explains how policymakers, technology companies, and researchers have major roles to play in prioritizing adolescent mental health within social media platforms
Maryam Abdullah: The Surgeon General’s advisory says, “The current body of evidence indicates that while social media may have benefits for some children and adolescents, there are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.” How would you help parents understand this statement?
Jacqueline Nesi: In all the media coverage that has come out about the Surgeon General’s advisory, the phrase “profound risk of harm” tends to be the first thing that’s in the headlines. But when we look at the advisory as a whole going outside of that one statement, it does paint a more nuanced picture of what we know from the research, which is that there are both benefits and harms to social media on kids. Its impact is complicated. It depends on a lot of factors, including how it’s being used, the individual child who is using it, their particular risks and vulnerabilities, what the time on social media is replacing, or what it is potentially getting in the way of.
The “profound risk of harm” statement itself may be a slight overstatement of the data in terms of what we actually know about these nuanced impacts of social media on mental health.
“Social media” is a broad term that is referring to a lot of different platforms where teens and adults can do lots of different things. Some of the things they’re doing are beneficial for their mental health, and some of the things they’re doing are not and in some cases are harmful. I think that one of the takeaways of the Surgeon General’s advisory is that even if the evidence is not definitive and even if there are both risks and benefits, because there is some evidence of risk to at least some kids, that is evidence enough for us to act to make these platforms as safe as possible for youth and to maximize the benefits that they can have.
MA: When and how is social media good for adolescents?
JN: Generally, social media can be beneficial to adolescents when it’s being used in ways that promote their well-being: to maintain friendships, make friendships, or get social support when they’re struggling. One of the major benefits of social media is just social connection.
Other potential benefits would be things like learning and discovery, like learning more about topics they might not have known before or discovering new interests or what’s going on in the world. Identity exploration and affirmation are other important benefits, as well. On social media, adolescents can find other people who are similar to them in terms of both interests and identity, and that can be particularly important for youth who might be marginalized in their offline lives, including sexual minority youth.
Many of the benefits I just named are particularly important for adolescents. During adolescence, some of the key developmental tasks that youth are engaged in are things like identity—figuring out who they are—as well as figuring out who they are in relation to others, forming social connections and relationships. All of this serves to promote independence and autonomy, which is another key aspect of that developmental period. Many of the benefits of social media as well as many of the risks map onto these tasks that are so important for adolescents to navigate during that time.
MA: What does the research suggest about social media and adolescents’ exposure to discrimination, bullying, and content that can encourage self-harm?
JN: The Surgeon General’s advisory breaks down the research on risks into two major categories: exposure to harmful content and overuse of social media that gets in the way of other activities. When it comes to harmful content, that can include anything from bullying and harassment, hate speech, or content that encourages or promotes harmful behaviors like disordered eating or self-harm. Exposure to those kinds of things is really problematic for teenagers and for anyone.
Overuse happens when social media is being used to an extent where it’s excessive, or it’s really getting in the way of other activities that we know are important for mental health, like sleep, exercise, time outside, in-person social interactions.
MA: One recommendation in the APA advisory is that adolescents should be screened for signs of “problematic social media use.” What are some signs of problematic use? Who can do these screenings?
JN: The number of minutes or hours on social media isn’t necessarily always a great indicator of whether this has become problematic, particularly because teens may be spending some of that time doing things that are very adaptive, like communicating with friends.
It really comes down to whether social media is causing problems in everyday functioning: Is it getting in the way of activities that are so important for mental health? Is it causing significant conflict or problems with family, friends? Is it getting in the way of schoolwork or academic functioning?
As with many concerns that come up in children and adolescents, parents are on the first line of noticing. If something seems wrong or off with their children, I think parents know their children best. They may be the first to notice something. Schools can also be looking out for changes in behavior or functioning that may be related to excessive social media use. If parents have concerns about their child’s mental health, or about potential excessive use, seeking out a mental health provider is also a good idea.
I also think that a child’s pediatrician is a great place to start. At least brief screenings around the time of a yearly well child visit make sense. Informally, all the adults in a child’s life—parents, teachers, school counselors, and health care providers—can be helping to monitor and pay attention to how a child is interacting with social media.
MA: Another recommendation in the APA advisory is that adolescents should receive training in “social media literacy.” What is social media literacy training? Where can families turn to for this training?
JN: The general idea behind social media literacy would be helping youth understand how social media interacts with their daily lives—being aware of the potential risks of social media as well as its benefits, knowing how to use it safely and in healthy ways. There’s a number of different aspects that could be covered, like being aware of and how to spot misinformation, signs of problematic use, how to build healthy online relationships, recognizing what is safe communication about mental health online, and handling conflicts that come up on social media platforms.
Generally, training around these topics could be offered in schools in many cases. There are a number of different digital citizenship or social media literacy curricula that are out there. Common Sense Media, for example, has one of the larger ones that many schools use. A good place for parents to start is to understand what is being offered at your child’s school around teaching about some of these issues. And then it’s something that parents can also supplement at home.
MA: What are the key recommendations for parents and families from these two advisory reports? What are some practical tips you would give to parents to use today to nurture healthy social media use in their teens?
“There are both benefits and harms to social media on kids. Its impact is complicated”
JN: The first key is communication. Have open, ongoing dialogue about both the risks and the benefits of social media and teach about some of the risks. The second key is monitoring. Ask questions to learn about what your child is up to, particularly for younger adolescents. That may involve asking a lot of questions and some amount of keeping an eye on what they’re doing. You can occasionally check your adolescent’s device with their knowledge, of course. You can also sit down and use social media together with your child.
The third key is limits or boundaries. These technologies are, in many cases, designed to be used a lot and to be somewhat difficult to put down. Most adolescents are going to need some kind of limits or boundaries around how much and when they can use these platforms, the types of content they should be looking at, the way they should be conducting themselves online, and who they should be talking to.
Another key is modeling. Parents’ own use of social media actually plays a significant role in how their children use social media. As parents, modeling healthy social media habits that we want to see in our kids is important. This is something that parents are not only trying to navigate for their children, they’re trying to figure it out for themselves. A really good place to start is checking in on what your own relationship with social media is like and trying to set limits and boundaries for yourself.
I think you can name those things for your kids, as well. It can be really validating to be explicit about telling your children that it can be really hard for you to put away your devices or log off these platforms. Rather than you against your child when it comes to social media, it’s you and your child together against the draw of the technology.
One last key is setting some protected zones. This involves identifying times of day or locations where social media is not going to be part of the picture. In particular, it may be useful to do that around bedtime, so keeping devices outside of the bedroom and, if possible, limiting use prior to going to bed to make sure that sleep is being protected.
MA: The Surgeon General’s advisory explains that the onus should not be placed solely on the shoulders of parents and families. What actions should policymakers, technology companies, and researchers take to ensure that social media not only doesn’t harm adolescents, but contributes to their well-being?
JN: One of the main things that is called out in these advisories is that the tech companies should be prioritizing kids’ safety and health when designing their products. That in itself is a major change from the way that things are operating right now.
Other recommendations that the advisory includes are making sure that children’s privacy is protected, like by having default settings that are set to the strongest levels for protecting privacy, and making sure that any age minimums are adhered to and enforced. Right now, most social media platforms have age 13 as their minimum age (and there is discussion about increasing that age), but we know that many kids under the age of 13 are using these platforms.
The final recommendation is assessing the impact that their platforms are having on youth well-being, which involves proactively sharing any relevant data with independent parties, whether that’s researchers or the public, and then, of course, taking steps to mitigate any harm that is revealed. These recommendations are certainly a good start for making a big difference.
MA: Is there anything else you’d like to share about social media use in adolescence?
JN: I do think that social media is one very important factor for many teens’ mental health. But it’s definitely not the only thing when it comes to teens’ mental health. It’s important that we take some of these very necessary steps to make sure that teens and young people are safe and protected on social media and that we also don’t lose sight of the many other factors that we know are crucial for supporting mental health. Fixing social media, if we can, is an important step, but it’s not going to solve everything when it comes to mental health.