New Health Advisory on Social Media Use in Adolescence

What are the latest recommendations from the American Psychological Association?

To say that there is a lot of attention right now on teenage social media use is an understatement. Yet all of the attention hasn’t necessarily produced a clear and coherent path for parents. Instead, we continue to experience significant whiplash between headlines that say, “Screen time is fine!” on one hand, and, “Screen time is causing all the bad things!” on the other. 

It’s not surprising that headlines, not known for capturing nuance, haven’t done the best job of translating science. Unlike other activities that we know are always harmful to adolescents, technology (including social media) can both help and hurt. The more we learn, the more the details matter. The effects of social media are shaped in significant ways by young people’s specific vulnerabilities and strengths, their digital skills and habits, their access to resources and supports, and the ways that platforms are designed. 

That doesn’t mean, however, that there isn’t good guidance as we walk this more complex path alongside our kids. Just this week, the American Psychological Association released a brand new Health Advisory on Social Media Use in Adolescence that spells out research and recommendations in one balanced and helpful summary. 

Teens on social media on their phones

New report provides guidance related to teenage social media use

For those wanting a simple, “Five steps to guarantee great mental health online!,” this Health Advisory is likely to disappoint. That is a good thing. The advisory makes it clear that context matters, not all findings apply to all youth, adolescents mature at different rates, and online challenges are inextricably linked to offline ones. In other words, it’s still complicated.

But let’s lean into these evidence-based recommendations when we feel overwhelmed. And let’s take the compelling invitation to turn towards the young people in our lives to make sense of them together. 

Here are some of our key takeaways from the advisory: 

Connection and belonging are key.

The report recommends we encourage young people to use tech in ways that provide support, connection, and emotional intimacy. The report acknowledges the ways in which social connectedness and belonging online can be protective for adolescent mental health, especially during times of stress or isolation. This can be particularly important for marginalized youth including LGBTQIA+ youth, youth of color, and youth with specific mental health diagnoses. That said, we should also be cognizant of the “dual sensitivity” that many of these young people face. Many benefit more than their peers from the support they find online at the same time that they are more vulnerable to the risks. 

More support –  Building Belonging Starts at Home

Platforms should be designed with adolescent mental health in mind.

The report acknowledges that platforms are not designed to promote adolescent development and wellbeing. Design features created for adults may not be appropriate for young people. For example, features like endless scrolling, the “like” button, algorithmic recommendations, and data capture are often at odds with developmental needs. Social media platforms can no longer ignore the specific needs and vulnerabilities of their youngest users. 

More support – Let’s Design Tech for Adolescent Development, Not Dollars and Persuasive Design and Growing Brains: What It Is So Hard to Unplug

Step meaningfully into the digital lives of early adolescents (10-14 year olds).

Not surprisingly, the strengths and vulnerabilities of young people at the beginning of adolescence are different from those of emerging adults. This report points specifically to the ways that early adolescence may represent a window of sensitivity to social media harms. For example, brain regions associated with social comparison, peer feedback, and reward processing are especially sensitive during this time. This doesn’t mean that we resort to “control and confiscate” during middle school. There are certainly compelling reasons to delay social media until after middle school. But adults should also step in with healthy modeling, meaningful boundaries, coaching, and communication to help young adolescents manage risk.  

More support – Why the Shift From Control to Connection is Key to Mental Health and Does Your Tween Want a Phone? Consider These Five Questions First and 10 Tips to Build Trust With Parental Controls (Instead of Eroding It)

Limit exposure to harmful content.

The report is clear that exposure to harmful content may be related to increased risk for mental health issues. This group of experts urges us to take seriously the potential for significant harm associated with:

      • Exposure to health risk behaviors such as self-harm, harm to others, or disordered eating behaviors.
      • Exposure to “cyberhate” content such as online racism, extremism, transphobia, ableism, sexism, and other -isms.  
      • Exposure to beauty or appearance related content, especially when adolescents are using social media for social comparison related to physical appearance

While young people can certainly curate their feeds or report violations to try to avoid harmful content, the report also points a finger back to the platforms themselves. The authors note that platforms should flag or remove this content and/or at the very least not drive users towards this content. 

More support – Body Image and Social Media and Why Kids Need Us To Talk To Them About Extremism Online

Watch out for “problematic use.”

While many adults and teens alike throw around the word “addiction” fairly casually when it comes to technology use, the report urges us to get specific and pay attention to signs of “problematic social media use.” Problematic use doesn’t just mean liking social media or spending a lot of time there. Instead we should be screening regularly for signs that social media use is interfering with what adolescents want or need to do in school, at home, and with their friends. 

More support – The “I’d Rather Inventory” for Digital Wellbeing and Warning Signs: Problematic Interactive Media Use

Protect sleep and movement.

The authors of the report acknowledge the overwhelming evidence of the protective power of sleep and movement for mental health. It turns out that screens and sleep aren’t a good mix and that social media use can interfere with much-needed physical activity. Setting limits that protect these two things are essential to mental health and wellbeing. 

More support – Screen Time Limits: Focus on Mental Health Not Arbitrary Rules and Teenagers and Sleep in the Digital Age

Invest in social media literacy.

While acknowledging the need more research in this area, the authors of this report note that just as we wouldn’t give young people keys to a car without driver’s ed, they shouldn’t start on social media without social media literacy training. Regular conversations and lessons about digital citizenship, digital dilemmas, and digital literacy are increasingly essential. Young people need to have an understanding of things like mis-information, online structural racism, signs of problematic media use, and how to navigate online conflicts among others.

More support – Parenting for Media Literacy: Storytelling and Power Matter and For Teens, Digital Citizenship Takes Practice and What Should We Focus On Now? Teens, Screens, and Attention

The path forward is together

Parents everywhere are eager for an accessible roadmap that will guide us through the digital world. This report provides helpful guideposts. But the reality of the research is that even as we gain more understanding we will still need to tailor the map to our own families and our own kids. That’s the approach that we take in our online class CONNECTED: How to Show Up For Your Kids in the Digital Age. That’s the approach young people are asking us to take when they share the complexity of their digital lives. That’s the approach that will ensure that above all else, we stay connected to young people as their digital worlds expand.