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Experts Release Guidelines for Parents, Teachers, and Tech Companies to Help Adolescents Navigate Social Media Safely and Effectively

The American Psychological Association (APA) recently released a set of perplexing and bursty guidelines for adolescents’ use of social media on Tuesday, which included 10 recommendations. The APA proposed that adolescents should be trained in media literacy and that their screen time should not interfere with sleep or physical activity. They also suggested tailoring social media use to young people’s developmental capabilities, routinely screening for “problematic social media use,” and limiting how much teenagers use social media to compare their beauty or appearance with others. APA Chief Science Officer Mitch Prinstein, who co-chaired the advisory panel that developed the recommendations, stated that “There is a lot of talk about social media these days, including some suggestions that do not fit with the science. 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 in psychology from various fields analyzed the latest research to determine where science has reached a consensus about teens and social media. While some of the experts’ recommendations were practical, such as providing teens with resources about the positive and negative sides of social media, others were 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.

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. A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation last month that would require social media users to be at least 13 years old and mandate parental consent for users aged 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 is that the parties collaborate to help young users have positive outcomes when they use social media.

The recommendations are most likely to be useful to people who interact with teens every day, like parents and teachers, said Emma Woodward, a clinical psychologist with the nonprofit Child Mind Institute. 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.” However, she also said that some of the guidelines, such as avoiding cyberhate, might be hard to put into practice.

The APA stated that their guidelines were 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,” said Prinstein.

While social media can be a useful tool for connecting with others and combating social isolation, it can also exacerbate certain mental health issues. For example, individuals struggling with depression may find themselves comparing their lives to the highlight reels of others on social media, leading to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.

The APA’s guidelines emphasize the importance of tailored social media use to young people’s developmental capabilities. This means that parents and educators should take into account their children’s age, maturity, and mental health when determining appropriate social media use. For example, younger children may need more supervision and guidance on social media, while older adolescents may be able to handle more independence.

The guidelines also encourage routine screening for “problematic social media use.” While there is no official diagnosis for social media addiction, studies have found that excessive social media use can lead to negative mental health outcomes, including anxiety and depression. By routinely screening for problematic use, parents and educators can intervene early and help young people establish healthier habits around social media.

Another key recommendation is to limit how much teens use social media to compare people’s beauty or appearance. This is particularly important given the prevalence of beauty standards and body shaming on social media platforms. By limiting exposure to these harmful messages, young people can better cultivate a positive self-image and avoid negative mental health outcomes.

However, some experts argue that the guidelines do not go far enough in addressing the root causes of social media’s negative effects on mental health. For example, social media platforms are designed to be addictive, with features like infinite scrolling and push notifications that keep users engaged for longer periods of time. Some experts argue that policymakers and tech companies need to take a more active role in addressing these issues.

In recent years, there has been growing concern about the negative mental health effects of social media use, particularly among young people. Studies have found that excessive social media use can lead to a range of negative outcomes, including anxiety, depression, and decreased well-being. As a result, many experts have called for more research on the topic, as well as increased regulation of social media platforms.

In addition to the APA’s guidelines, there have been several recent legislative efforts to address the negative effects of social media on young people. For example, a bipartisan group of senators recently 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. Other legal cases against social media companies are also making their way through the judicial system, with some plaintiffs alleging that social media is harmful to younger users and likening its addictiveness to that of opioids or tobacco.

Overall, the APA’s guidelines offer a starting point for parents, educators, and tech companies looking to promote healthier social media use among young people. However, there is still much work to be done to address the root causes of social media’s negative effects on mental health, and to ensure that young people are able to use social media in safe and positive ways.