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10 Recommendations on Social Media Use By Adolescents from the American Psychological Association

Early research notes that setting social media limits and having adult-child conversations around social media uses leads to the “best outcomes for youth”, APA observed

“The effects of social media likely depend on what teens can do and see online, teens’ preexisting strengths or vulnerabilities, and the contexts in which they grow up,” observed a new health advisory on adolescent social media usage issued by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Using this maxim, the academic grouping advised adolescents to use social media in “healthy ways”, platforms to design kid-friendly spaces, and parents to step in more to monitor how their children are surfing the Internet.

Why it matters: Social media addiction among children is on the rise—thanks to the pandemic and long spells of online education. Without discounting the many benefits of exploring the Internet at a young age, addiction can lead to serious cognitive and behavioural disruptions for children. The APA’s recommendations towards children and parents may be a step towards addressing the issue holistically and collaboratively. However, platforms may require a stronger (and better-designed) regulatory stick before they make their virtual words safer and less addictive.

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The APA’s 10 recommendations

1. Use social media in ways that promote “healthy socialisation”: In short, that means using social media to build social support, online companionship, and emotional intimacy. Doing this can support the psychological development of young people especially when they’re socially isolated, stressed, or looking for people going through similar things. People suffering from mental illnesses may find that social media interactions help them “control, practice, and review” social interactions. Social media can be especially useful for members of marginalised groups that otherwise experience harm online or are reluctant to discuss sensitive topics with their caregivers, said the APA, citing the example of LGBTQIA+ groups. Discussing healthy behaviour online can also reinforce positive behaviour offline.

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2. Social media should be designed for youth: Simply put: platforms designed for adults aren’t always appropriate for children, warns the APA. For example, features like ‘likes’, recommended content, unrestricted and endless scrolling, and changes to privacy policies should be designed to suit the cognitive abilities of adolescents. “Adolescents should be informed explicitly and repeatedly, in age-appropriate ways, about the manner in which their behaviors on social media may yield data that can be used, stored, or shared with others, for instance, for commercial (and other) purposes,” the APA suggested.

3. Adult monitoring of social media use by adolescents advised: This can gradually decrease as children become older and more digitally literate, however, all monitoring should respect the child’s privacy too. The APA thinks this monitoring is necessary because the parts of our brains linked to “mature self-control” only fully develop upon reaching adulthood. On the flip side, brain regions linked to feedback, peer reinforcement, and a desire for attention are increasingly sensitive during early adolescence—which is why parental monitoring is important. Adults should also keep an eye on how they use social media in the presence of young people, because their behaviour can impact how adolescents use social media too.

Early research notes that setting social media limits and having adult-child conversations around social media uses leads to the “best outcomes for youth”, APA observed.

4. Minimal adolescent access to content depicting illegal or psychologically maladaptive behaviour: Access to content that encourages self-harm, harm to others, and disordered eating, among others, should be minimised, reported, and removed, the APA argued. Vulnerable youth exposed to this behaviour, which is socially reinforced online, may find themselves increasingly at risk of “psychological symptoms, even after controlling for offline influences”.

Technology should not drive users to discover this content either. There should be reporting structures that allow people to easily identify harmful content, and get it deprioritised or removed from the platform.

5. Exposure to “cyberhate” should be minimised: Cyberhate includes online discrimination, prejudice, hate or cyberbullying (especially when targeted at marginalised groups and individuals), says the APA, and exposure to it can lead to an increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression. Interestingly, research suggests that online bullying can be more damaging to psychological development compared to its offline counterpart.

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The APA also argues that critiquing racism online can help reduce psychological distress in specific situations:

“Adolescents should be trained to recognize online structural racism and critique racist messages. Research shows that young people who are able to critique racism experience less psychological distress when they witness race-related traumatic events online.”

6. Screen adolescents for signs of “problematic social media use”: Indicators of this kind of social media use include using social media even when they want to stop or realise that their use is interfering with “necessary tasks”. They also may be spending a lot of effort to ensure that they have continuous social media access, including lying or using deceptive behaviours to retain access. They have strong social media “cravings” or may lose or disrupt relationships or educational opportunities because of their use.

7. Social media use shouldn’t interfere with adolescents’ sleep and physical activity: Research suggests that using technology (particularly social media) within one hour of going to bed can lead to sleep disruptions, which can impact adolescents’ neurological development and emotional development. It can also increase suicide risks. Social media use shouldn’t interfere with physical activity either—which has been demonstrated to be an essential part of physical and psychological health, and can lower depression rates.

8. Limit social media use for social comparison: The APA particularly notes that adolescents should be conscious of the beauty and appearance-related content they consume. Research indicates that focusing on these comparisons, especially by girls, can lead to poor body image, disordered eating, and depressive symptoms.

9. Social media literacy is necessary before using social media: This ensures “that users have developed psychologically-informed competencies and skills that will maximize the chances for balanced, safe, and meaningful social media use,” the APA argues.

Other competencies that could follow include an ability to question the accuracy and representativeness of content, as well as to understand the tactics behind spreading mis- and dis-information. It can also limit tendencies to “incorrectly estimate” another person’s behaviour simply based on their social media content, and can also help users identify signs of “problematic” usage of social media. It can help people build healthy relationships, refrain from “excessive social comparisons”, communicate safely about mental health, and solve conflicts emerging online too. It can also help people “recognize online structural racism and critique racist messages”.

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10. More resources needed for research on the effects of social media on adolescents: This includes “substantial” long-term investments into studies on social media impacts on young children and marginalised populations. For researchers, access to data, whether from tech platforms or otherwise, is required to examine this issue.

What is the basis of the APA’s recommendations?

The APA’s recommendations were based on scientific evidence and various underlying considerations:

No inherent benefit or harm of young people using social media: How social media impacts an adolescent depends on their unique personal and psychological characteristics, as well as their social settings. These intersect with the content, functions, and features of social media platforms to produce different and contextualised effects.

Specific factors impact social media experiences: The first is how adolescents shape their social media usage, including the types of content they like and follow. The second is the “visible and unknown” in-built features on platforms.

Research isn’t generalisable: Or, in other words, all scientific research doesn’t equally apply to each adolescent. That data should be used along with contextualised information to make tailored decisions for adolescents, families, and communities.

Adolescents develop gradually, and so should their social media use: Social media use should correspond to an adolescent’s maturity levels and home environment. Generally, the risks of social media are higher during early adolescence, when a large number of biological, social, and psychological transitions take place. However, “because adolescents mature at different rates, and because there are no data available to indicate that children become unaffected by the potential risks and opportunities posed by social media usage at a specific age, research is in development to specify a single time or age point for many of these recommendations,” the APA adds.

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Racism is in-built on social media platforms: Algorithms “can often have centuries of racist policy and discrimination encoded,” APA observed. Social media platforms subsequently may become “incubators” of racist hate, which can lead to offline physical violence and “threats to well-being”.

All research has its limitations: The APA acknowledged the limitations of the studies it relied on, noting that studies noting causal relationships between two phenomena are rare. This is because the data needed for such hypotheses is difficult to collect or may only be available with tech companies. There is also limited research on the long-term links between social media usage during adolescence and adulthood. Also, fewer studies are available on marginalised adolescent groups, “including those from marginalized racial, ethnic, sexual, gender, socioeconomic backgrounds, those who are differently abled, and/or youth with chronic developmental or health conditions”.

This post is released under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 license. Please feel free to republish on your site, with attribution and a link. Adaptation and rewriting, though allowed, should be true to the original.

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I'm interested in stories that explore how countries use the law to govern technology—and what this tells us about how they perceive tech and its impacts on society. To chat, for feedback, or to leave a tip: aarathi@medianama.com

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