Psychologists' Group Issues First Guidelines on Teens' Use of Social Media

TUESDAY, May 9, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- It’s easy for kids to get drawn into Instagram, Snapchat or TikTok, and a leading U.S. psychologists' group warns they need some training in social media literacy beforehand.

The American Psychological Association on Tuesday issued 10 science-based recommendations for teen and preteen social media use, the first time it has done so. The APA compares training in social media to getting a driver’s license. Teens can’t just hit the road without learning the rules.

“There are some ways that social media can benefit and there are some ways that it might cause harm,” said Mitchell Prinstein, the APA’s chief science officer. The report authors wanted to make sure their approach was balanced, he said.

There are certain psychological competencies kids should have before they use social media. These are tailored to strengths and the level of maturity that individual kids possess, the report noted.

Parents can help their youngsters develop those competencies, and they can also screen for problematic online behaviors, the report advised.

How parents can help

Among the skills parents can teach kids is knowing what’s real and what isn’t on these platforms.

“We all have a natural tendency to believe what we see, to overgeneralize and assume that what we see is probably representative of a great number of people. We all have a tendency to compare ourselves to others. These are natural human characteristics,” Prinstein said. “When we did it in the offline world and it was limited to only a certain amount of time and only in certain contexts, we were better able to handle that.”

Having access to this around the clock with all these misperceptions and social comparisons can be concerning for children’s psychological health, Prinstein said.

Another key point: Kids "should be informed explicitly and repeatedly, in age-appropriate ways, about the manner in which their behaviors on social media may yield data that can be used, stored, or shared with others, for instance, for commercial [and other] purposes," the report says.

The APA also wants to emphasize that some of this is the responsibility of tech designers or legislators.

“A platform that's designed to give the same exact experience to an 8-year-old versus an 80-year-old is not paying attention to what we know about kids' development and kids' unique vulnerabilities,” Prinstein said.

The guidelines were compiled by a panel of experts in various types of child mental health, ranging from clinical child psychologists to school psychologists.

A substantial investment in research is necessary, the report noted, and it should include access to data from tech companies.

While the platforms can push a person to care about the numbers, not about developing positive relationships, they're not all bad.

“We do know that there are some benefits particularly for those from underrepresented groups. There's a real source of social support and helping to find others with similar identities or interests that social media can offer,” Prinstein said. “And we wouldn't want to take that away from youth of color or youth with gender and sexual identities that might not match their families or most people in their school and communities.”

Research also shows that kids are more likely to have diverse friendships online than in person because communities are still segregated, he said. They’re also more likely to engage in civic activism.

Yet there are people out there who are teaching children to harm themselves and to hide it from their parents, Prinstein said.

“I think it's just important for parents to realize that without monitoring there's a good chance kids are going to experience this. And if they do, they might have a lot of questions,” Prinstein said. “Similarly, a lot of kids are being exposed to cyber hate and there's research that shows that that's harmful not just to the victims, but to anyone who sees it.”

What to watch for

Parents should be watchful for signs that social media use is interfering with daily life or with sleep, the report cautioned. They should monitor kids’ social media use in early adolescence, from about age 10 to 14, increasing autonomy as they age. Monitoring should be balanced with youths’ appropriate need for privacy, the report suggested.

“I think they did a really good job at highlighting both how to use it well and the benefits, and then also calling out the risks,” said Ariana Hoet, executive clinical director for the children’s mental health organization On Our Sleeves based in Columbus, Ohio. She was not involved with the report.

“In terms of the health care world that I'm a part of, it's a reminder that just like we're screening for things like depression and anxiety, we should be asking kids about their social media use and the impact,” Hoet said. “How many hours are you spending on it? How do you feel after you use it? Is it impacting your sleep?”

Hoet, too, sees social media’s good and bad elements.

“The APA report does talk about amplifying the pro-social acts, and I agree with that. We can learn a lot from each other. Build empathy. It allows for that interacting with groups that are outside of your own,” she said.

The bad can include social comparison and the need to be constantly checking a phone, Hoet said.

Her organization encourages parents and caregivers to have conversations with their kids about social media. It also offers tools to help parents understand social media and how a child may use it, along with resources to help families create boundaries.

“I thought the callout for the longitudinal research was really important. Knowing the long-term effects, not just immediate, but what happens as kids grow older and they become adults,” Hoet said. “I think that's important."

The amount of research dollars dedicated to child mental health is small compared to investments in other areas of science, Prinstein said.

“It's just time for that to change. We need a mental health moonshot, in the same way that [President] Biden talks about a cancer moonshot,” Prinstein said.

More information

The Pew Research Center has more on teens and social media.

SOURCES: Mitchell Prinstein, PhD, chief science officer, American Psychological Association; Ariana Hoet, PhD, executive clinical director, On Our Sleeves, and clinical assistant professor of pediatrics, Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio; Health Advisory on Social Media Use in Adolescence, American Psychological Association, May 9, 2023

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