The American Psychological Association released a set of 10 recommendations for adolescents’ use of social media Tuesday, including training them in media literacy and limiting screen time so it does not interfere with sleep or physical activity.
The guidelines acknowledge that teenagers are going to use social media no matter what, so the organization said it aims to offer suggestions for adolescents and the parents, teachers and tech companies involved in their lives. Other recommendations include: tailoring social media use to young people’s developmental capabilities, screening routinely for “problematic social media use” and limiting how much teens use social media to compare people’s beauty or appearance.
“There is a lot of talk about social media these days, including some suggestions that do not fit with the science,” said APA chief science officer Mitch Prinstein, a co-chair of the advisory panel that developed the recommendations. “We are releasing this report now to offer a science-based and balanced perspective on this issue so all stakeholders can make decisions based on our expertise regarding benefits and potential risks associated with social media.”
Experts who made the suggestions hail from various areas in psychology, Prinstein said. They analyzed the latest research to determine where science has reached a consensus about teens and social media, he said.
While some of the experts’ recommendations are practical, like providing teens with resources about the positive and negative sides of social media, others are more nebulous, such as minimizing teens’ exposure to “cyberhate.”
Prinstein compared teens’ social media use to driving a car, in that keeping adolescents safe should be a team effort that includes policymaking, parental supervision and changes from the companies that make the products.
“Social media is here to stay,” Prinstein said. “So we need to teach kids how to get the best they can from it and avoid the worst.”
Social media is here to stay. So we need to teach kids how to get the best they can from it and avoid the worst.
— Mitch Prinstein, co-chair of the advisory panel that developed the recommendations
Concern has been rising over what young people consume on social media and how it affects their views of themselves. Politicians and lawmakers have put the companies behind social media apps such as Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat under increased scrutiny amid reports that some users have struggled with body image issues and suicidal ideation, among other mental health effects.
Last month, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation that would require social media users to be at least 13 years old and mandate parental consent for users ages 13 to 17.
Legal cases against some social media companies are also making their way through the judicial system. One class-action suit, which consolidates more than 100 similar cases, alleges that social media is harmful to younger users and likens its addictiveness to that of opioids or tobacco.
The new recommendations target a variety of stakeholders: parents, educators, tech companies and adolescents themselves. The hope, Prinstein said, is that the parties collaborate to help young users have positive outcomes when they use social media.
Emma Woodward, a clinical psychologist with the nonprofit Child Mind Institute, said the recommendations are most likely to be useful to people who interact with teens every day, like parents and teachers. She suggested turning the individual guidelines into conversation starters with teens.
“I certainly think the best way to help kids be safe online is for it to be a collaboration between parents and their kids or their teens,” said Woodward, who was not involved in creating the recommendations. “That collaboration is probably going to lead to the most success in terms of helping kids use social media safely.”
Woodward said she is glad the recommendations reflect an understanding that teens will use social media regardless of whether parents, educators or tech platforms step in. But she said that, while they are admirable, some of the guidelines might be hard to put into practice — like avoiding cyber hate.
“While of course I think it’s very aspirational to avoid cyber hate at all, I think it’s also something that the vast, vast majority of kids and teens who use social media are probably going to come across,” she said.
Prinstein said the guidelines are intended not to vilify social media but rather to offer a safer approach.
“It absolutely was important that we reflect the science accurately, and that includes discussing both the benefits and the potential warning signs that we’re seeing related to social media use,” he said.
In a report accompanying the recommendations, the authors said that social media “is not inherently beneficial or harmful to young people” and that those who use it in moderation and in ways that help cultivate their offline communities are likely to benefit from connections made on it. The recommendations also acknowledge that young people who are struggling with mental illness, such as social anxiety, may benefit from interacting with others on social media.
However, the authors added that that group could also experience the harms of social media, such as viewing content that encourages disordered eating or self-harm.