How parents can actually help teens navigate social media

The American Psychological Association published its first ever tips on youth social media use last week compiled 10 recommendations for educators, policy makers, tech companies and parents to help teens experience technology safely and positively.

The group said teens should be monitored for “problematic” social media use and that it was important to minimize teens’ exposure to cyberbullying, online hate and content that causes them to compare their physical appearance to that of others. The importance of teaching digital citizenship and literacy to teenagers was also highlighted.

At the same time, the APA acknowledged that tech companies have a role to play in all of this, urging them to consider whether features like endless scrolling and a “Like” button are developmentally appropriate for teens.

But as all parents know, the burden of monitoring and educating children and staying up to date with rapidly changing technology falls on them. And trying to do that can feel frustrating and ineffective.

“As both a parent and a psychologist, I realize that the demands placed on parents go beyond what we can do,” said Laura Gray, a psychologist at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC.

The New York Times contacted Dr. Gray and seven other experts — many of whom are parents of teenagers or teenagers — to ask a simple question: What is one practical strategy that caregivers can use with their children, starting now, to help mitigate the harms social media?

The APA has recommended that adults closely monitor the use of social media by children between the ages of 10 and 14. Dr. Gray agreed that this was a critical window for parents to teach good habits.

She said the family could decide, for example, that at first the child would be limited to only one app, and that for the first six months, parents would view posts and friend requests along with the child. The aim is to provide practical scaffolding.

As a mother of one teenager and two younger children, Dr. Gray knows how difficult it is to provide this kind of intensive supervision. But taking even five minutes a day to check your child’s social media use is fine if families have access to it, she said.

Parents should also make sure all accounts are set to private, said Girard Kelly, head of child and youth affairs.

And virtually no screens at night will affect your teen’s ability to get at least eight or nine hours of sleep, said Mitch Prinstein, director of science at the APA and co-chair of the advisory panel that wrote the new guidelines.

“Now we know that this is the main cause of sleep disturbance,” he said, “and now we know science to say disrupted sleep literally affects the size of teenagers’ brains.”

Almost every expert interviewed stressed how important it is, including Jean Twenge, a psychologist who has spent years sounding the alarm on the ways in which social media has contributed to the erosion of teen mental health.

“We know from so much sleep research that people don’t sleep as well or for as long if their phone is within reach,” she said.

Dr Twenge recommended that all family members put their phones in a communal space at night – a practice her own family follows.

Dr Gray added that teens can defy these types of boundaries, especially if parents are trying to enforce them retroactively. In these cases, “it’s helpful to be able to justify: ‘So we think this is a loving parent’s response to you,'” she said. “Even if they can still react emotionally.”

The human brain develops from the back to the front, explained Dr. Frances Jensen, head of the department of neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Teenage Brain. The middle part of the brain, which she describes as the “social brain,” is “actively constructed during adolescence” – and is the most vulnerable to outside influences. However, the front part of the brain, which manages things like decision-making, risk mitigation, and emotional regulation, develops well into your late 20s. So, she said, teens “really operate with a very active social brain, which makes them very vulnerable to peer pressure” as well as novelty seeking. And they don’t get feedback from the front of their brain telling them to stop and pull themselves together.

Dr Jensen urged parents to talk to their children about these brain changes and how they make them particularly vulnerable to some of the more negative effects of social media. All the content, feedback, and stimulation available online “are very accessible to kids right when their social brain is developing,” she said, describing it as a “perfect storm.”

This question is particularly effective in assessing whether teen social media use has become problematic, said Jeff Hancock, founder and director of the Stanford Social Media Lab. He suggested starting with something like, “Hey, sometimes it’s hard not to be on the phone all the time. Do you ever struggle with it?

If your teen says yes, this is an opportunity to talk about management strategies. For example, Mr. Hancock is teaching his 12-year-old (who so far only has access to YouTube TikTok videos) to set a timer for himself. She’s working on what it’s like to take responsibility for her screen time and learn how to cope when the clock is ringing and she wants to stay online.

While the APA’s call to limit teens’ use of social media to compare themselves to others may seem vague, one way is to teach teens to do a simple gut test by asking themselves, “Do any of these accounts make me feel worse about myself or my body? said Dr. Jason Nagata, a specialist in adolescent medicine at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco, who specializes in treating eating disorders.

While the negative impact of social media on girls’ body image has been widely discussed, Dr Nagata stressed that parents should encourage children of both sexes to engage in this type of practice.

“Although it is less understood and less hidden, boys are also vulnerable to these influences,” he said. “Research has shown that Instagram use by boys and men is associated with skipping meals, eating disorders, muscle dissatisfaction and even anabolic steroid use.”

Experts stressed that it was important for parents to support an open dialogue about social media throughout their children’s lives. Teens – especially those who are older and may be more free online – often assume their parents are asking questions about their social media use because they intend to crack down on them or take their phones, said Becky Lois, a child and adolescent psychologist at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at New York University Langone.

“The approach is really critical here,” she said. “We need to help children understand why we are asking this question. It’s not accusatory, critical or judgmental.” Tell them very clearly that you are asking because you are curious about this aspect of their lives, not because they are in trouble, Dr. Lois recommended.

She is also a realist. Teenagers may not be honest or want to talk to you about it, she said, but it’s a parent’s job to keep asking questions.

Dr Lois added it was important to “connect with them to get to know this part of their lives and also make sure they know it’s a safe space to talk about what they’re seeing.”

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