Following the Wall Street Journal’s recent report, which revealed that Facebook’s own research indicates that Instagram can be harmful for teenage girls, parents may be left feeling overwhelmed. While there is still much research to be done to understand the nuances of social media’s impacts on young people, experts agree that there are social media best practices that every caregiver should keep in mind.
To help parents support their children, especially their teenage daughters, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development has invited a panel of interdisciplinary researchers, clinicians, educators, and experts to share their recommendations for working together with your teens to ensure they have the healthiest social media experience possible.
One: Carefully Plan Social Media Introduction
Research shows that teens and millennials use social media apps more than anything else on their phones. In addition, those social media apps are the first things that young people access when unlocking their devices, and they’re responsible for most of the notifications they receive. This information has led me to establish the following three guidelines:
1. Children under 13 should not be on social media unless they are sitting with a parent who is co-viewing the activity
2. Preteens should be limited to one hour a day under the supervision of a parent until the parent is comfortable [NOTE: it may be wise to have the preteen join a social media site on the parent’s phone until satisfied with their behavior]
3. Teenagers should be allowed to use social media between one and three hours daily. Still, there should be clear limitations as to the time of day (not near bedtime, for instance), and parents should supervise until satisfied that their child is behaving safely.
Regardless of age, parents should check social media sites with their child/preteen/teenager weekly and discuss any negative behaviors they encounter.
Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus of Psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills
Co-author of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World
Two: Discuss the Impact of Advertising
Advertising images influence how we feel about ourselves and our body image. Discuss how kids today feel pressure to look a certain way or be a certain way. While these conversations won’t make the influence of social media vanish, they can help lessen the impact of images and content and help girls build more self-confidence.
Elizabeth Englander, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology, Founder/Director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center
Bridgewater State University
Three: Be Body Positive
Parents can play a vital role in this process by fostering self-esteem that’s separate from appearance and by modeling their own positive body image. I recommend that parents take a non-dieting approach to eating, encourage physical activity for enjoyment rather than calorie burning, and eliminate any “fat talk” around the house.
Talk to your teens about what they like about themselves (and what you like about them that has nothing to do with how they look), and remind them of the importance of balancing social media with “real life.” It may be impossible to get them away from their phones entirely, but you can encourage creativity through photography of things other than themselves and their friends.
Jennifer Mills, Ph.D.
York University Associate Professor of Psychology
Four: Keep an Eye on Whom She Follows
In my team’s recent study, we found that about a fifth of our sample of over 700 early adolescents aged 11-14 experienced social media-related body dissatisfaction, especially girls. Those who followed celebrities were especially affected by the photos and images they posted, which impacted teens’ mental health status.
These findings suggest that parents should keep an eye on who their teens follow online, especially celebrities who may post unrealistic, idealized images on a regular basis. In the long run, these social media posts may not be as extreme or obvious to watch out for as ones related to cyberbullying, suicide, or substance use, but these seemingly innocuous beauty ideals may be the source of subconscious inner turmoil, and they can be easily curated out of teens’ social media news feed.
Linda Charmaraman, Ph.D.
Director of the Youth, Media, & Wellbeing Research Lab
Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College
Five: Model Healthy Body Behavior On and Off-Screen
It’s important to model positive behavior for your kids on the internet. Reduce the amount of time you spend on social media and create a more positive environment for yourself by unfollowing accounts that promote unattainable beauty ideals. Instead, follow accounts that post content unrelated to physical appearance (e.g., travel, art, inspirational quotes).
I recommend that parents be kind in the way they talk about their own and other people’s bodies, both online and off. Avoiding appearance-based conversations and focusing on other positive aspects about themselves and others can improve body image for parents and teens. Parents could encourage teens to have open discussions with them about their experiences online and encourage teens to follow their lead by creating a more positive environment for themselves on social media.
Jasmine Fardouly, Ph.D.
DECRA Research Fellow, School of Psychology
University of New South Wales Sydney
Six: Be an Active Listener
Conversations about drugs, drinking, driving, and sex education are all considered important parts of growing up, but conversations about navigating social media are still relatively new and uncharted territory for many parents. Instead of communicating to your teen that social media is ‘all bad,’ try understanding your teen’s unique experience with it.
Teens are the experts of their own social media use and often even about social media platforms themselves. Use this as an opportunity to learn about your teen’s favorite social media site and try downloading it yourself. This may create a new connection between you and your teen while also enabling a more open conversation about social media. Together, you can brainstorm ways you can help them engage in the benefits of social media while setting safeguards against the negative.
Jessica L. Hamilton, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology
Seven: Evaluate the Unique Effects on Your Child
Although many teens report negative effects related to their social media use, not all do, and there is important variation in when and under what circumstances negative effects occur, as well as what they look like (e.g., eating disorder vs. depression). Social media interacts in complicated ways with the many other aspects of teens’ lives, and the knowledge you gain will help you identify what kinds of support — whether from you, a therapist, or another trusted person — may be best for your teen.
Katie Davis, Ph.D.
Associate Professor & Ph.D. Program Chair
Eight: Discourage Selfies
One of the most potentially deleterious social media behaviors is the selfie. When teens begin to take, post, and send selfies at every turn, they are focusing on appearance and showing off, rather than sharing exciting events in their lives or neat places they’ve visited. These self-focused images can encourage and/or hide a tendency toward narcissism; and, in fact, these highly curated posts become fodder for other teens’ social comparison.
Furthermore, this behavior can interfere with real in-person social interaction and may damage relationships with peers. Selfies also pose a privacy risk as they are rife with opportunities for facial recognition. While discouraging selfies, parents can help their teens find opportunities to share authentic and meaningful photos and experiences.
Nine: Set Limits
The teen mind is primed to place undue importance on status among peers and is particularly sensitive to social comparison, which makes it easy for social media platforms to tap into adolescents’ greatest anxieties and motivations. One of the easiest ways for parents to help protect their teens is to place limits on their social media use.
The most important limit may be to collect phones and tablets before bedtime, and to turn off the wifi at that time if needed. This will help ensure that teens get the sleep they need, which is strongly protective against depression. Other social media-free times can be established as well: during meals, after school before homework is completed, etc. This can be a challenging task because many teens will resist such limits, but the youth who resist limits the most are often those who will benefit most greatly from them.
Paul Weigle, M.D.
Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Associate Medical Director Natchaug Hospital
Ambulatory Service, Natchaug Hospital
Chair of the Media Committee, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Ten: Validate and Emphasize
Taking the time to validate and empathize with the realities and challenges of navigating social media indicates that you’re tuned in and aware. It’s important for your daughter or teenage loved one to show you that they have the skills to manage the very powerful and influential exposure that social media provides. If they can’t do that, then it’s your job as their caregiver to hold the line and set the appropriate boundaries. It never feels good to have a teenage upset with you, but just remember, they’ll thank you later when they’re healthier for it.
Allison Chase, Ph.D.
CEDS-S, Regional Clinical Director, Texas
Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Mood and Anxiety Center
Children and Screens
Top photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
Second photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels