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Being Social or Driving Us Mad?

Social media platforms have become extremely problematic for the mental health of our society’s teens.

The American Psychological Association (APA) has issued an advisory on the impact that social media can have on teenagers, and how parents and grandparents can protect them from the negative impact of various social media platforms.

This APA guidance could not be more timely, as a highly publicized debate surrounding the social media platform TikTok has recently raised concerns for parents and prompted federal hearings to examine TikTok’s impact on teenagers’ mental health, as well as privacy concerns.

Depression, Anxiety, and Loneliness on the Rise:

In the modern digital era, teenagers are reporting disturbingly higher rates of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and even disordered eating and officials believe social media has a lot to do with it.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons // GHCassel

U.S Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said, “None of us should be satisfied until we have clear evidence that these platforms are safe.”

Murthy advocates for regulators to institute a higher standard of data privacy and increased transparency from tech companies to protect children from the potentially harmful effects of social media.

Another recent survey also found a very troubling trend; two out of every five teenage girls on Instagram and TikTok see content related to suicide at least once a month.

Roughly one-third of teenage girls on Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, and YouTube see content related to eating disorders at least once a month.

In fact, the Psychological Association cites studies that show exposure to harmful content could result in youths imitating the many and varied problematic behaviors they see online.

Research by the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that teens aged 12-15 on social media more than three hours per day, are at greater risk for poor mental health compared to teens that spent less time online.

As children get older, it becomes harder for parents to oversee their online activity, which is why the APA encourages parents and grandparents to teach their children about the realities of social media usage, before they are allowed to freely roam the internet.

The APA outlines 10 recommendations for how parents can better guide their children’s social media usage.

  1. Encourage children to use the sites as sources of social support and companionship to curb loneliness and isolation.

  2. Tailoring social media functionality and algorithms to teens’ developmental capabilities

  3. Having parents monitor the online activity in early adolescence (age 10-14)

  4. Report harmful content so algorithms no longer suggest related posts to children.

  5. Minimizing teens’ exposure to online discrimination and hate speech.

  6. Routinely screen teenagers for negative effects of social media use.

  7. Limit teens’ social media time so it doesn’t impact sleep and physical activity.

  8. Help teens avoid appearance-based comparison with what they see on social media.

  9. Educate children on the ways in which social media platforms gather and sell user data.

  10. Allocate resources for research on the positive and negative affects of social media on teens’ development.

Many of these recommendations require the cooperation of regulators and the social platforms themselves, which is very likely to be an uphill battle.

As social media is suddenly so enmeshed in modern life, there are no quick fixes for parents or grandparents concerned about its effects on their children’s mental health.

For real change to occur the design of social media platforms has to acknowledge their potential negative impact on teen behavior, and leadership at the big tech companies behind these social platforms would do well to acknowledge the role their product plays in mental health.

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