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Major psychologists' group warns of social media's potential harm to kids

There's growing evidence that social media use can contribute to mental health issues among teens. A new health advisory suggests ways to protect them.
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There's growing evidence that social media use can contribute to mental health issues among teens. A new health advisory suggests ways to protect them.

At a time of rising rates of depression and anxiety among teens, the American Psychological Association warns parents that their children need more protection when they are online.

For the first time, the American Psychological Association has issued recommendations for guiding teenager's use of social media. The advisory, released Tuesday, is aimed at teens, parents, teachers and policy makers.

This comes at a time when teenagers are facing high rates of depression, anxiety and loneliness. And, as NPR has reported, there'smounting evidencethat social media can exacerbate and even cause these problems.

"Right now, I think the country is struggling with what we do around social media," says Dr. Arthur Evans, CEO of the APA.The report, he says, marshals the latest science about social media to arm people "with the information that they need to be good parents and to be good policy makers in this area."

The 10 recommendations in the report summarize recent scientific findings and advise actions, primarily by parents, such as monitoring teens' feeds and training them in social media literacy, even before they begin using these platforms.

But some therapists and clinicians say the recommendations place too much of the burden on parents. To implement this guidance requires cooperation from the tech companies and possibly regulators.

"We're in a crisis here and a family's ability or a parent's ability to manage this right now is very limited," says Robert Keane, a therapist at Walden Behavioral Care, an inpatient facility that helps teens with eating disorders. "Families really need help."

Screening, monitoring and training

While social media can provide opportunities for staying connected, especially during periods of social isolation, like the pandemic, the APA says adolescents should be routinely screened for signs of "problematic social media use."

"Is it getting in the way of your child's sleep and physical activity? Is it getting in the way of their school, or other activities that are important in their development?" Evans asks. "Or is it hard for them to detach from social media? Do they lie so they can engage with it?" Those are the kinds of things that parents should be on the lookout for when they're monitoring their child's social media use, Evans says.

The APA recommends that parents should also closely monitor their children's social media feed during early adolescence, roughly ages 10-14. Parents should try to minimize or stop the dangerous content their child is exposed to, including posts related to suicide, self-harm, disordered eating, racism and bullying. Studies suggest that exposure to this type of content may promote similar behavior in some youth, the APA notes.

This type of content is more common in children's feeds than parents may realize. A recent survey of teenage girls found that 40% see harmful images and videos related to suicide at least once a month on Instagram and TikTok, and about a third say they see content related to eating disorders at least once a month on Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube.

Another key recommendation is to limit the use of social media for comparison, particularly around beauty — or appearance-related content. Research suggests that when kids use social media to pore over their own and others' appearance online, this is linked with poor body image and depressive symptoms, particularly among girls.

As kids age and gain digital literacy skills they should have more privacy and autonomy in their social media use, but parents should always keep an open dialogue about what they are doing online.

"As children become older, you're going to be spending more time coaching, talking, and helping to educate your child," Evans says.

The report also cautions parents to monitor their own social media use, citing research that shows that adults' attitudes toward social media and how they use it in front of kids may affect young people.

A bigger problem than parents can tackle

But some psychologists say the guidance is missing tangible, actionable advice. For example, where does a parent find social media training for their child?

"This isn't like teaching your kid to drive a car," Keane says. "This is completely new information for many parents and their kids. I would say this is not a level playing field. Your kids are actually much more advanced in this than you are."

And how do they monitor an app that their child knows more about than they do? "You can't – you can't– monitor kids' utilization on these platforms," he emphasizes. "As a parent, these feeds get away from you."

Keane and his colleagues say dangerous material really shouldn't be in children's feeds in the first place. "It's a little hard for me to imagine that these recommendations can be implemented without coordination with big tech companies or even regulations through congress," says Kameron Mendes, a therapistwho works with Keane at Walden Behavioral Care.

"So while it's a great start, I think we still have a long way to go before it trickles down to real change," he says.

The APA's report does contain recommendations that could be picked up by policy makers seeking to regulate the industry. For instance it recommends the creation of "reporting structures" to identify and remove or deprioritize social media content depicting "illegal or psychologically maladaptive behavior," such as self-harm, harming others, and disordered eating.

It also notes that the design of social media platforms may need to be changed to take into account "youths' development capabilities," including features like endless scrolling and recommended content. It suggests that teens should be warned "explicitly and repeatedly" about how their personal data could be stored, shared and used.

Emma Lembke, 19, founded LogOFF, an initiative to help adolescents manage their social media use and reconnect with their offline life. She says that teens should be involved in making these kinds of recommendations or creating social media trainings.

"They have to be built out with young people at the table as active participants rather than passive onlookers," she says. "I think a lot of these curricula are created by individuals who do not understand what it's like to grow up as a digital native, a naive young person in the online world."

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Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.