For the first time, the American Psychological Association has issued recommendations for guiding teenager's use of social media. The advisory, released Tuesday, is aimed at teens, parents, teachers and policy makers.

This comes at a time when teenagers are facing high rates of depression, anxiety and loneliness. And, as NPR has reported, there's mounting evidence that social media can exacerbate and even cause these problems.

"Right now, I think the country is struggling with what we do around social media," says Dr. Arthur Evans, CEO of the APA. The report, he says, marshals the latest science about social media to arm people "with the information that they need to be good parents and to be good policy makers in this area."

The 10 recommendations in the report summarize recent scientific findings and advise actions, primarily by parents, such as monitoring teens' feeds and training them in social media literacy, even before they begin using these platforms.

But some therapists and clinicians say the recommendations place too much of the burden on parents. To implement this guidance requires cooperation from the tech companies and possibly regulators.

"We're in a crisis here and a family's ability or a parent's ability to manage this right now is very limited," says Robert Keane, a therapist at Walden Behavioral Care, an inpatient facility that helps teens with eating disorders. "Families really need help."

Screening, monitoring and training

While social media can provide opportunities for staying connected, especially during periods of social isolation, like the pandemic, the APA says adolescents should be routinely screened for signs of "problematic social media use."

"Is it getting in the way of your child's sleep and physical activity? Is it getting in the way of their school, or other activities that are important in their development?" Evans asks. "Or is it hard for them to detach from social media? Do they lie so they can engage with it?" Those are the kinds of things that parents should be on the lookout for when they're monitoring their child's social media use, Evans says.

The APA recommends that parents should also closely monitor their children's social media feed during early adolescence, roughly ages 10-14. Parents should try to minimize or stop the dangerous content their child is exposed to, including posts related to suicide, self-harm, disordered eating, racism and bullying. Studies suggest that exposure to this type of content may promote similar behavior in some youth, the APA notes.

This type of content is more common in children's feeds than parents may realize. A recent survey of teenage girls found that 40% see harmful images and videos related to suicide at least once a month on Instagram and TikTok, and about a third say they see content related to eating disorders at least once a month on Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube.

Another key recommendation is to limit the use of social media for comparison, particularly around beauty — or appearance-related content. Research suggests that when kids use social media to pore over their own and others' appearance online, this is linked with poor body image and depressive symptoms, particularly among girls.

As kids age and gain digital literacy skills they should have more privacy and autonomy in their social media use, but parents should always keep an open dialogue about what they are doing online.

"As children become older, you're going to be spending more time coaching, talking, and helping to educate your child," Evans says.

The report also cautions parents to monitor their own social media use, citing research that shows that adults' attitudes toward social media and how they use it in front of kids may affect young people.

A bigger problem than parents can tackle

But some psychologists say the guidance is missing tangible, actionable advice. For example, where does a parent find social media training for their child?

"This isn't like teaching your kid to drive a car," Keane says. "This is completely new information for many parents and their kids. I would say this is not a level playing field. Your kids are actually much more advanced in this than you are."

And how do they monitor an app that their child knows more about than they do? "You can't – you can't– monitor kids' utilization on these platforms," he emphasizes. "As a parent, these feeds get away from you."

Keane and his colleagues say dangerous material really shouldn't be in children's feeds in the first place. "It's a little hard for me to imagine that these recommendations can be implemented without coordination with big tech companies or even regulations through congress," says Kameron Mendes, a therapist who works with Keane at Walden Behavioral Care.

"So while it's a great start, I think we still have a long way to go before it trickles down to real change," he says.

The APA's report does contain recommendations that could be picked up by policy makers seeking to regulate the industry. For instance it recommends the creation of "reporting structures" to identify and remove or deprioritize social media content depicting "illegal or psychologically maladaptive behavior," such as self-harm, harming others, and disordered eating.

It also notes that the design of social media platforms may need to be changed to take into account "youths' development capabilities," including features like endless scrolling and recommended content. It suggests that teens should be warned "explicitly and repeatedly" about how their personal data could be stored, shared and used.

Emma Lembke, 19, founded LogOFF, an initiative to help adolescents manage their social media use and reconnect with their offline life. She says that teens should be involved in making these kinds of recommendations or creating social media trainings.

"They have to be built out with young people at the table as active participants rather than passive onlookers," she says. "I think a lot of these curricula are created by individuals who do not understand what it's like to grow up as a digital native, a naive young person in the online world."

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For the first time, the American Psychological Association is issuing recommendations for teenagers' use of social media.


And it comes at a time when teens and tweens are facing high rates of depression, anxiety and loneliness. There's evidence that social media can make all of those problems worse.

INSKEEP: NPR mental health correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff is here. Good morning.


INSKEEP: Well, OK, what do they recommend?

DOUCLEFF: So the recommendations focus really on two main points. First is the content on kids' feeds. The APA says parents need to make sure to minimize dangerous content, including that related to suicide, eating disorders and racism. Studies suggest that exposure to these harmful behaviors can actually promote them in some children.

INSKEEP: And I would imagine that some children see that kind of thing often.

DOUCLEFF: You know, it has become more common than maybe many parents realize. A recent survey of teenage girls using social media found that more than a third come across content related to suicide or eating disorders at least once a month. Dr. Arthur C. Evans is a CEO for the APA. He says parents also need to be aware of cyberhate and cyberbullying.

ARTHUR C EVANS: Online cyberbullying can be more harmful than offline bullying, so there's an impact that is greater for online bullying.

DOUCLEFF: So the APA guidelines say that for kids under age 15 or so, parents should really be with the child when they use social media.

EVANS: As children become older, you're going to be spending more time coaching, talking, helping to educate your child.

DOUCLEFF: The APA also notes that this dangerous material really shouldn't be in the child's feed in the first place, and that that responsibility sits largely with the tech companies making these platforms.

INSKEEP: And yet the recommendations put a lot of burden on the parents. The idea of being there all the time your kid is near a screen seems problematic. Is that the right word?

DOUCLEFF: Absolutely. And monitoring the feeds - right? - is hard.


DOUCLEFF: It's a criticism I'm hearing from a lot of clinicians. One of them is Bob Keane. He's a psychologist at Walden Behavioral Care, which helps teens with eating disorders. He says it's unrealistic to expect parents to be able to monitor kids' accounts like this, especially when kids know more about social media than parents do.

BOB KEANE: We're in a crisis here, and a family's ability or a parent's ability to manage this right now is very limited. And that's, I think, what families really need help with. What do we do? You can't monitor kids' utilization on this as a parent. It's really - they get away from you.

DOUCLEFF: And so, many psychologists tell me this guidance really can't be implemented without cooperation from tech companies or some federal regulation.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, until that happens, is there anything else parents can do?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. You know, the other big recommendation is to get kids training before they start social media or while they're on it. They need to be taught about this dangerous content, and the fact that a lot on social media is a highlight reel of people's lives, right? It's not reality. Studies show that when teens compare themselves to these images, it can cause depression. And remember, these platforms can be addictive. The algorithms try to keep kids on these platforms as long as possible. So one tangible piece of advice I'm hearing, Steve, is for families to have periods in the day where nobody in the family is using social media at all.

INSKEEP: Oh, I'm sorry, Michaeleen. I was just checking Instagram. What were you saying? No, I'm just kidding.

DOUCLEFF: (Laughter) No social media for an hour, everyone.

INSKEEP: Gotcha. There we go. Great. Great. I'll go for that. Michaeleen, thanks so much.

DOUCLEFF: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR mental health correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff. And seriously, if you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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