In the first guidance of its kind, the American Psychological Association (APA) has issued sweeping recommendations intended to help teenagers use social media safely.
The guidance is primarily directed toward parents and formalizes prior recommendations around social media use, including setting time limits, family discussions about social media and parental monitoring.
The recommendations acknowledge that more research is needed to understand the full impact social media has on mental health.
"Social media is neither inherently harmful nor beneficial to our youth," said APA President Thema Bryant in prepared remarks. "But because young people mature at different rates, some are more vulnerable than others to the content and features on many social media platforms that science has demonstrated can influence healthy development."
During the pandemic, for example, social media helped ease loneliness. Used in the wrong context, however, it can be harmful to mental health.
"Overall, I think the advisory is great. I appreciate that the APA took a balanced approach and discussed both the benefits and risks. This highlights the importance of taking an individualized approach to every child," said Ariana Hoet, a pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children's Hospital who was not involved in making the guidance.
The guidance contains 10 recommendations designed to ensure that teens get the proper training on how use social media safely. For most families, that means staring with an active discussion about which sites teens are using, how often and how those experiences make them feel.
Psychologists say that adolescent brain development starts around age 10 and continues through early adulthood. APA cautions that sites that use "like" buttons and artificial intelligence to encourage excessive scrolling "may be dangerous for developing brains" and recommends limiting social media use on these types of platforms through phone settings.
In addition to setting limits, APA strongly encourages ongoing discussions about social media use and active supervision, especially in early adolescence. Parents are encouraged to model healthy social media use, including taking social media "holidays" as a family.
Children should also be monitored for problematic social media use, including interference with normal routines, choosing social media over in-person interactions, lack of physical activity, strong cravings to check social media and lying to spend more time online. In these cases, a mental health provider might be able to help.
Parents should also teach social media literacy, which includes educating teens about the pitfalls of social media. They shouldn’t place too much emphasis on "likes" as a measure of their own self-worth, experts say, and they should understand that social media is often a highly sanitized or glamorized version of the real world.
"The APA advisory outlines that there are two things we can do for best outcomes: limits and boundaries and open discussion and coaching," said Hoet, who runs a program called On Our Sleeves that offers free-downloadable resources for families, including conversation starters for parents who don’t know where to start.
"Parents and caregivers have to remember that children’s brains are still in development, so they need monitoring and support in order to make the healthiest choices," Hoet said.