Psychologists have issued new social media guidelines for adolescents. Here's what parents need to know.

Experts weigh in on new social media recommendations from the American Psychological Association.

What should parents know about new social media guidelines for adolescents? (Photo: Getty)
What should parents know about new social media guidelines for adolescents? (Photo: Getty)

Parents have long struggled to know what limits to place on their children when it comes to social media use, and they finally have some answers. This week, a presidential panel of the APA (American Psychological Association) released new findings and recommendations on social media use by tweens and teens.

“Social media usage among adolescents is quickly becoming a major public and mental health problem. As such, these recommendations by the APA are especially welcome because they are evidence-based and practical,” says Dr. Nathan Carroll, resident psychiatrist at Jersey Shore University Medical Center.

The new guidelines are based on short-term studies conducted on thousands of adolescents, meaning experts are still learning more about the effects of social app use on young people. Here’s what parents should know for now:

Much like adults, teens and tweens can benefit from finding community via social media.

This is especially true for adolescents who struggle to connect with others in person, including LGBTQ youth, teens struggling with anxiety and depression and others who lack support at home.

Adolescents can benefit from having their social apps tailored to their social and cognitive abilities and comprehension.

Psychologist and parenting expert Reena B. Patel advises parents to assess the social and emotional development and readiness of their kids — as in, their ability to think and reason when faced with a challenge. “Ask yourself questions like: How impressionable is my teen? What behaviors show me their self-esteem is strong? How do they respond to peer pressure? Do they have a tendency to model negative behaviors?” says Patel.

Sanam Hafeez, psychologist and director of Comprehend the Mind, also recommends that, prior to allowing their child to use social media, parents consider whether they are good about following the rules, having respect for others and being able to regulate their emotions.

To tailor a child’s social media experience, Hafeez also offers the following steps:

  • Disable private messaging at least “until the child has demonstrated the ability to communicate respectfully and responsibly online.”

  • Disable location sharing.

  • Disable commenting “until the child has demonstrated the ability to communicate respectfully and positively interact with others online.”

  • Disable in-app purchases.

  • Disable live streaming “until the child has demonstrated the ability to handle peer pressure and make responsible decisions online.”

Monitoring all social media use for early adolescents (ages 10-14) is recommended.

Parents should come into an agreement with their child that they have full access to their phone/device and social media accounts from the get-go. Regularly asking to see their device in order to see what has been posted, liked, followed, etc. is a good idea. As kids get older, they can slowly gain more privacy.

Tweens and teens should be trained in social media literacy prior to being allowed to create accounts.

Hafeez recommends starting conversations about digital safety and responsible online behavior from a young age. “Talk to them about the potential risks associated with social media, such as cyberbullying, sexting and online predators,” she says.

She also recommends fostering critical thinking skills. “Teach your children how to evaluate online content critically and question the credibility of sources. Encourage them to fact-check information they come across online and discuss any doubts or questions they have with you,” says Hafeez, who suggests seeking out resources for social media literacy training, including Common Sense Education, Media Literacy Now, Teaching Tolerance, National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), and Internet Matters.

Minimize adolescents’ exposure to problematic and hateful content, including content that prompts self-harm, eating disorders and prejudice against people of marginalized backgrounds.

“As a parent, it's important to prepare your children for the possibility of encountering disturbing or inappropriate content on social media,” says Hafeez. She recommends talking to children early on about what they might see online, why it's important to be careful and what to do if they come across something that upsets them.

Setting ground rules is also important from the get-go. “Establish clear guidelines for what your children can and cannot do online, and monitor their usage of social media apps to make sure they are following the rules,” she says. “Encourage your children to be cautious when clicking on links, following strangers or giving out personal information online.”

Hafeez also recommends using parental control features and settings to restrict access to age-inappropriate content.

And finally, limit social media use and be vigilant of signs of “problematic social media use.”

As most parents know, social media can ultimately become addicting, cutting into work, sleep and offline social experiences. Hafeez advises parents to check in with their child regularly and pay attention to changes in mood and behavior that might relate to the child’s social media use.

“Social media algorithms ultimately reward behaviors of excess,” adds Carroll. “Users are reduced to data points, with popularity decided by likes, reactions and views.”

Carroll points to APA chief science officer Mitch Prinstein’s own statements to the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year, in which Prinstein noted that children “do not have the ability to restrain themselves from using social media too much." Social media, he continued “offers the ‘empty calories of social interaction’ that appear to help satiate our biological and psychological needs,” but doesn’t contain the “healthy ingredients necessary to reap benefits.”

“We need strong regulatory action to prevent social media companies from profiting from their addiction,” says Carroll.

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