Keeping teens safe on social media: What parents should know to protect their kids
Social media can help teenagers with healthy development but it can also create risks. Psychological research shows it is critically important to focus on how teens use social media and the type of content they see.
As a parent or caregiver, you are the expert on your child. You know what experiences will fit with their strengths and areas of vulnerability. These recommendations are based on research and will help you and your teens be smart users of social media, avoiding the harms, and gaining maximum benefits.
1. Recognize developing brains may be especially vulnerable to specific social media features.
Communicating with friends on social media can be helpful for child development, including a chance to learn new social skills and complex relationships. But the like button and use of artificial intelligence to promote excessive scrolling may be dangerous for developing brains.
Adolescent brain development generally starts before puberty, around age 10, and lasts through early adulthood. This is an important phase of growth during which the brain undergoes dramatic developmental changes. In early adolescence, brain regions associated with a desire for attention from peers become increasingly sensitive. Social media may exploit that desire. Meanwhile, brain areas important for self-control don’t fully develop until early adulthood. When thinking about the use of social media in your family, it’s important to recognize the unique vulnerabilities of adolescent brains. Your guidelines around social media use should evolve as children mature.
WHAT TO DO: Limit social media use on platforms that include counts of likes or encourage excessive use. Use screen time settings available on most devices or on platforms to help teens set limits and learn self-control. Prohibit screen time that interferes with at least 8 hours of sleep a night to ensure healthy brain development among teens.
2. Monitor and discuss your child’s social media use.
Parents should take a multipronged approach to social media management, including time limits, parental monitoring and supervision, and ongoing discussions about social media.
As noted above, time limits can help teens with self-control and encourage moderate social media use. Limiting chat functions, especially among strangers, and limiting exposure to adult content is also recommended. Particularly for younger teens, parents may consider allowing social media use only when children are at home so that parents can keep a closer eye on their online activities.
In addition, adult monitoring of social media postings and content viewed is advised, especially in early adolescence. Unsupervised social media use is more likely to expose children to potentially harmful content and features of social media. Scientific studies demonstrate it is also critical for parents to engage in ongoing discussions with adolescents about how to use social media in safe and helpful ways. This is hard for many parents and caregivers since some of these platforms and their functions are unfamiliar to many adults today.
WHAT TO DO: Talk to your teen weekly about how social media platforms work so they feel safe telling you about their experiences without judgment. Ask them what they saw on social media, how they understand what was posted, and pose hypothetical questions to them to learn how they would respond to various situations they might encounter online.
3. Model healthy social media use.
Research studies show teens learn some social media behavior and attitudes from their parents. It is important for adults to model healthy social media use in their own lives. To model good digital behavior, avoid using social media when at the dinner table or engaging in family time, and make sure your conversations about social media reflect the ways you want them to feel about social media use.
WHAT TO DO: Discuss how and why you use social media with your children. Set limits for social media use for yourselves and encourage your children to follow your example. Take social media holidays as a family and discuss the challenges and temptations you all experience when away from social media for a long time.
4. Watch for problematic social media use.
Keep an eye out for signs your child may be using social media in unhealthy ways. Your child’s social media use might be causing problems if:
- It interferes with their daily routines and commitments, such as school, work, friendships, and extracurricular activities.
- They often choose social media over in-person social interactions.
- It prevents them from getting at least 8 hours of quality sleep each night.
- It prevents them from engaging in regular physical activity.
- They keep using social media even when they express a desire to stop.
- They experience strong cravings to check social media.
- They lie or use deceptive behavior to spend time online.
WHAT TO DO: Ask your child if any of these statements above are true for them. If you are concerned your child is dependent on social media or using it in unhealthy ways, consider enforcing new limits around accessing this technology. If you suspect your child is experiencing psychological harm or you are having difficulty managing your child’s social media use, a mental health professional may be able to help you find healthier ways to engage with the digital world.
5. Teach social media literacy.
Social media platforms, schools, and teens can all play a role in teaching social media literacy. Parents and caregivers can help. See APA’s recommendations for areas of social media literacy that will help adolescents have more positive experiences, and reduce risks online, based on the available science to date.
To learn more about the research behind these recommendations, see APA’s Health Advisory on Social Media Use in Adolescence.