Healthy Recommendations for Adolescent Social Media Use

23 June 2023

I am interested in learning about what science can tell us regarding the potential beneficial and harmful effects of social media use on adolescents' social and psychological development. The American Psychological Association have recently released a report outlining key recommendations from their advisory board's research on adolescents and social media. This blog post attempts to summarise these recommendations as they provide important information for parents and teachers. 

Key quotes from the report: 

"Social media is neither inherently harmful nor beneficial to our youth," said American Psychological Association President Thema Bryant, PhD. “But because young people mature at different rates, some are more vulnerable than others to the content and features." (pg 3)

"Age-appropriate use of social media should be based on each adolescent’s level of maturity (e.g., self-regulation skills, intellectual development, comprehension of risks, and home environment)." (pg 3)

"Just as we require young people to be trained in order to get a driver’s license, 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." (pg 7)

"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." (pg 8)

social media interactions

Recommendations for Adolescent's Social Media Use: 

Encourage balanced online/offline activities:

The APA emphasises the importance of achieving a balance between online and offline activities. Parents should encourage adolescents to engage in a variety of activities beyond the digital realm such as sports, hobbies, and spending time with family and friends. 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.

Researchers from Oxford and Cardiff Universities proposed a 'Goldilocks Theory.' After studying 120,000 15-year-olds, they found a point between low and high usage of technology that is 'just right' for teenager's well-being. They attributed this to the ability of digital connectivity to enhance creativity and communication skills. Overall, the evidence indicated that moderate use of digital technology is not intrinsically harmful and may be advantageous in a connected world (Przybylski & Weinstein, 2017). They suggest that 15-year-olds should spend no more than 1 hour and 57 minutes on a smartphone on a weekday. The authors felt any more than this could interfere with socialising, exercise, school work or sleep. 

Set healthy boundaries and limits:

Establishing clear guidelines and limits around social media use is essential. Work together with adolescents to develop a family media plan that outlines appropriate usage, screen-free times, and device-free zones. Researchers like Twenge and Haidt strongly suggest pre-teens should not access social media platforms like Instagram. For example, Booker, Kelly, and Sacker (2018) studied 10,000 10 to 15-year-olds in the UK and concluded that social media interaction at 10 years of age was associated with declines in well-being for females. 

We should encourage young people to take breaks from social media, particularly before bedtime, to prioritise quality sleep. Setting these boundaries helps adolescents develop healthy habits and maintain a balanced lifestyle.

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 night 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.

Adolescents’ social media use also should not interfere with or reduce adolescents’ opportunities for physical activity and exercise. Significant research demonstrates that physical activity is vital for both physical and psychological health (i.e. lower rates of depression).

healthy recommendations for adolescent social media use

Promote digital literacy and critical thinking:

One of the most valuable skills for adolescents navigating social media is digital literacy. Adults should teach them how to critically evaluate the information they encounter online, such as fact-checking and identifying reliable sources. Education enables our young people to question and analyse the content they consume, protecting them from misinformation and manipulation.

Encourage open communication:

Establishing open lines of communication with adolescents is crucial. Encourage them to share the online experiences, concerns, and challenges they encounter on social media platforms. By fostering a non-judgemental and supportive environment, parents, teachers, and mentors can provide guidance, address potential risks, and empower adolescents to make responsible choices online.

Promote positive self-image and well-being:

Social media can sometimes contribute to negative self-image and poor mental health among adolescents. Encourage them to focus on developing their unique talents, interests, and strengths rather than comparing themselves to others online. Reinforce the idea that social media is often a highlight reel, and that everyone experiences ups and downs. You can read more about body image and social media in the last Well-being Blog post by clicking here

Teach digital citizenship:

As responsible digital citizens, adolescents should understand the impact of their online actions. Educate them about the potential consequences of cyberbullying, spreading rumours, or sharing inappropriate content. Emphasise the importance of respecting others' privacy, being mindful of the digital footprint they leave behind, and promoting positive online interactions. By fostering empathy and compassion, adolescents can contribute to a healthier and more inclusive online community.

Be a positive role model:

As adults, we play a significant role in shaping adolescent behaviour. It is essential to model healthy social media habits ourselves. Show adolescents that we can enjoy the benefits of social media while maintaining a balanced approach. Demonstrate responsible use, such as limiting excessive scrolling, engaging in meaningful interactions, and using social media as a tool for learning and personal growth.

The American Psychological Association's report provides valuable recommendations for parents and teachers to ensure safe and positive social media use among adolescents. By promoting digital literacy, open communication, balanced lifestyles, critical thinking skills, and healthy boundaries, we can empower young individuals to navigate the online world responsibly. Parents and schools need to work together to create a supportive environment where adolescents can thrive online while maintaining a healthy offline life. What actions are you taking to support your adolescents to have a healthy relationship with social media?

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