The FINANCIAL — To reduce the risks of psychological harm from Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat? APA, the leading scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States, with more than 146,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants, and students as its members recommends:
- Youth using social media should be encouraged to use functions that create opportunities for social support, online companionship, and emotional intimacy that can promote healthy socializationData suggest that youths’ psychological development may benefit from this type of online social interaction, particularly during periods of social isolation, when experiencing stress, when seeking connection to peers with similar developmental and/or health conditions, and perhaps especially for youth who experience adversity or isolation in offline environments.
Youth with symptoms of mental illness, such as adolescents with social anxiety, depression, or loneliness, for instance, may benefit from interactions on social media that allow for greater control, practice, and review of social interactions.
Unfortunately, these populations may also be at higher risk for some of the negative facets of social media use as discussed below.
Social media offers a powerful opportunity for socialization of specific attitudes and behaviors, encouraging adolescents to follow the opinions and prosocial acts of others. The discussion of healthy behaviors online can promote or reinforce positive offline activity and healthy outcomes.
Social media may be psychologically beneficial particularly among those experiencing mental health crises, or members of marginalized groups that have been disproportionately harmed in online contexts.
For instance, access to peers that allows LGBTQIA+ and questioning adolescents to provide support to and share accurate health information with one another is beneficial to psychological development, and can protect youth from negative psychological outcomes when experiencing stress.
This may be especially important for topics that adolescents feel reluctant to or are unable to discuss with a parent or caregiver.
two teens looking at a smartphone
2. Social media use, functionality, and permissions/consenting should be tailored to youths’ developmental capabilities; designs created for adults may not be appropriate for children.
Specific features (e.g., the “like” button, recommended content, unrestricted time limits, endless scrolling) and notices/alerts (e.g., regarding changes to privacy policies) should be tailored to the social and cognitive abilities and comprehension of adolescent users. As one example, adolescents should be informed explicitly and repeatedly, in age-appropriate ways, about the manner in which their behaviors on social media may yield data that can be used, stored, or shared with others, for instance, for commercial (and other) purposes.
3. In early adolescence (i.e., typically 10–14 years), adult monitoring (i.e., ongoing review, discussion, and coaching around social media content) is advised for most youths’ social media use; autonomy may increase gradually as kids age and if they gain digital literacy skills.
However, monitoring should be balanced with youths’ appropriate needs for privacy.
Brain regions associated with a desire for attention, feedback, and reinforcement from peers become increasingly sensitive beginning in early adolescence, and regions associated with mature self-control are not fully developed until adulthood.5 Parental monitoring (i.e., coaching and discussion) and developmentally appropriate limit-setting thus is critical, especially in early adolescence.
Adults’ own use of social media in youths’ presence should also be carefully considered. Science demonstrates that adults’ (e.g., caregivers’) orientation and attitudes toward social media (e.g., using during interactions with their children, being distracted from in-person interactions by social media use) may affect adolescents’ own use of social media.
Preliminary research suggests that a combination of 1) social media limits and boundaries, and
2) adult–child discussion and coaching around social media use, leads to the best outcomes for youth.
4. To reduce the risks of psychological harm, adolescents’ exposure to content on social media that depicts illegal or psychologically maladaptive behavior, including content that instructs or encourages youth to engage in health-risk behaviors, such as self-harm (e.g., cutting, suicide), harm to others, or those that encourage eating-disordered behavior (e.g., restrictive eating, purging, excessive exercise) should be minimized, reported, and removed; moreover, technology should not drive users to this content.
Evidence suggests that exposure to maladaptive behavior may promote similar behavior among vulnerable youth, and online social reinforcement of these behaviors may be related to increased risk for serious psychological symptoms, even after controlling for offline influences.
Reporting structures should be created to easily identify harmful content, and ensure it is deprioritized or removed.
5. To minimize psychological harm, adolescents’ exposure to “cyberhate” including online discrimination, prejudice, hate, or cyberbullying especially directed toward a marginalized group (e.g., racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, religious, ability status),or toward an individual because of their identity or allyship with a marginalized group should be minimized.
Research demonstrates that adolescents’ exposure to online discrimination and hate predicts increases in anxiety and depressive symptoms, even after controlling for how much adolescents are exposed to similar experiences offline.25 Similarly, research indicates that as compared to offline bullying, online bullying and harassment can be more severe, and thus damaging to psychological development.26–28 In other words, both online cyberhate and offline bullying can increase risk for adolescent mental health problems. Research suggests elevated risks both for the perpetrators and victims of cyberhate.
Adolescents should be trained to recognize online structural racism and critique racist messages. Research shows that young people who are able to critique racism experience less psychological distress when they witness race-related traumatic events online.
As noted above, adults’ monitoring and active discussion of online content can also reduce the effects of exposure to cyberhate on adolescents’ psychological adjustment.
6. Adolescents should be routinely screened for signs of “problematic social media use” that can impair their ability to engage in daily roles and routines, and may present risk for more serious psychological harms over time.
Indicators of problematic social media use include a tendency to use social media even when adolescents want to stop, or realize it is interfering with necessary tasksspending excessive effort to ensure continuous access to social mediastrong cravings to use social media, or disruptions in other activities from missing social media use too muchrepeatedly spending more time on social media than intendedlying or deceptive behavior to retain access to social media useloss or disruption of significant relationships or educational opportunities because of media use
Social media use should not restrict opportunities to practice in-person reciprocal social interactions, and should not contribute to psychological avoidance of in-person social interactions.
7. The use of social media should be limited so as to not interfere with adolescents’ sleep and physical activity.
Research recommends adolescents get at least eight hours of sleep each night32 and maintain regular sleep-wake schedules. Data indicate that technology use particularly within one hour of bedtime, and social media use in particular, is associated with sleep disruptions.
Insufficient sleep is associated with disruptions to neurological development in adolescent brains, teens’ emotional functioning, and risk for suicide.
Adolescents’ social media use also should not interfere with or reduce adolescents’ opportunities for physical activity and exercise.39 Research demonstrates that physical activity is essential for both physical and psychological health (i.e., lower rates of depression).
8. Adolescents should limit use of social media for social comparison, particularly around beauty- or appearance-related content.
Research suggests that using social media for social comparisons related to physical appearance, as well as excessive attention to and behaviors related to one’s own photos and feedback on those photos, are related to poorer body image, disordered eating, and depressive symptoms, particularly among girls.
9. Adolescents’ social media use should be preceded by training in social media literacy to ensure that users have developed psychologically-informed competencies and skills that will maximize the chances for balanced, safe, and meaningful social media use.
Emerging science offers preliminary support for the efficacy of Digital Citizenship and Digital Literacy47 to increase the frequency of positive interactions online; however, more research is needed in this area.
Additional competencies could also include:
questioning the accuracy and representativeness of social media contentunderstanding the tactics used to spread mis- and disinformationlimiting “overgeneralization” and “misestimation” errors that lead users to incorrectly estimate others’ behaviors or attitudes based on social media content (or reactions to content)signs of problematic social media usehow to build and nourish healthy online relationshipshow to solve conflicts that can emerge on social media platformshow to refrain from excessive social comparisons online and/or better understand how images and content can be manipulatedhow to recognize online structural racism and critique racist messageshow to safely communicate about mental health online
Substantial resources should be provided for continued scientific examination of the positive and negative effects of social media on adolescent development.
A substantial investment in research funding is needed, including long-term longitudinal research, studies of younger children, and research on marginalized populations.
Access to data among independent scientists (including data from tech companies) to more thoroughly examine the associations between social media use and adolescent development is needed.
APA is the leading scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States, with more than 146,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants, and students as its members.