One of the most prominent mental health organizations in the U.S. is out with a set of guidelines designed to protect children from the potential harms of social media.
The American Psychological Association (APA) issued its first-ever health advisory on social media use Tuesday, addressing mounting concerns about how social networks designed for adults can negatively impact adolescents.
The report doesn’t denounce social media, instead asserting that online social networks are “not inherently beneficial or harmful to young people,” but should be used thoughtfully. The health advisory also does not address specific social platforms, instead tackling a broad set of concerns around kids’ online lives with commonsense advice and insights compiled from broader research.
The APA’s recommendations center on the role of parents, but the advisory does denounce algorithms that push young users toward potentially damaging content, including posts that promote self harm, disordered eating, racism and other forms of online hate.
Other recommendations address kids’ habits and routines, largely the domain of adult caregivers. The APA encourages regular screenings for “problematic social media use” in children. Red flags include behaviors that track with symptoms of more traditional addiction, including spending more time on social media than intended and lying to maintain access to social media sites.
In that same vein, the APA recommends that parents remain vigilant to prevent social media from interrupting sleep routines and physical activity — two areas that directly and seriously impact kids’ mental health outcomes. “Insufficient sleep is associated with disruptions to neurological development in adolescent brains, teens’ emotional functioning and risk for suicide,” the advisory states.
Some of the recommendations aren’t particularly easy to navigate in today’s social media landscape, even for adults. One part of the health advisory advises limiting the time that young users spend comparing themselves to other people on social media apps, “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,” the APA states, citing ample research.
The APA emphasizes that outcomes on social media are shaped by offline experiences too, and those vary widely from child to child.
“In most cases, the effects of social media are dependent on adolescents’ own personal and psychological characteristics and social circumstances—intersecting with the specific content, features, or functions that are afforded within many social media platforms,” the APA wrote. “In other words, the effects of social media likely depend on what teens can do and see online, teens’ preexisting strengths or vulnerabilities, and the contexts in which they grow up.”
The organization also cautions parents and platforms about design features intended for adults that younger users might be more susceptible to, including algorithmic recommendations, like buttons and endless scrolling. These features along with advertising served to under-18 users have increasingly been criticized by regulators seeking to protect children from being manipulated by features designed to shape adult behavior.
The APA recommends a reasonable, age-appropriate degree of “adult monitoring” through parental controls at the device and app level and urges parents to model their own healthy relationships with social media.
“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,” the APA writes.
A final piece of advice is one that most adults would benefit from as well: boosting digital literacy across a number of social media topics, including how to recognize misinformation tactics and how to resolve conflicts that originate on social platforms.