The American Psychological Association, one of the country’s leading mental health organizations, released its first health advisory on social media Tuesday, warning parents and policymakers alike about the harms and benefits platforms could bring to young children.
The APA report may have stopped short of flat-out casting aside social media entirely, but it did still offer 10 recommendations to parents and policymakers on how to avoid potentially harmful outcomes. For starters, the APA said parents should regularly screen kids for “problematic social media use” that could interfere with their daily lives. Examples of these problematic use cases, the report notes, can include kids continuing to use social media even when they want to stop or cases where they engage in lying and other deceptive behavior to stay online. The report encourages active “adult monitoring” of social media use by children between the ages of 10-14 but quickly caveated that by saying such monitoring should be “balanced with youths’ appropriate needs for privacy.”
“Is it hard for them [kids] to detach from social media? Do they lie so they can engage with it?” APA CEO Arthur Evans said in an interview with NPR. “Those are the kinds of things that parents should be on the lookout for when they’re monitoring their child’s social media use.”
Most of the recommendations provided focus less on the actual algorithms and other technology underpinning social networks and more on young users’ relationships with the tech. The APA suggests limiting kids’ screen time, for example, not necessarily because that inherently leads to mental health harms, but because it could interfere with a child’s sleep, which studies have associated with neurological development in adolescent brains.
Elsewhere, the advisory recommends young users minimize the amount of time they spend on platforms comparing themselves to others or viewing illegal or psychologically maladaptive behavior because those actions are also associated with psychological harm. Parents of young users, the advisory notes, should minimize the time kids are exposed to posts related to suicide, self-harm, disordered eating, or other dangerous topics. That sounds reasonable and intuitive on its face, but finding ways to encourage parents to actually adhere to those guidelines in practice without invading their child’s sense of privacy is another feat altogether.
The advisory—which comes hot on the heels of dozens of proposed state child online safety bills—attempts to strike a balance between acknowledging areas of potential harm and advocating for increased parental oversight while simultaneously avoiding painting all social media use with an overly broad brush.
Right away, the APA acknowledges social media “is not inherently beneficial or harmful to young people,” but rather is highly variable depending on the personal and psychological characteristics of the user accessing the services. Young users already struggling with body image issues or depression, for example, may be more prone to experience negative outcomes on platforms than their peers. On the flip side, the report notes, young people struggling with mental health issues or others from marginalized groups may actually benefit from the support networks and advice they receive from other like-minded people on social media which may actually aid psychological development.
“In most cases, the effects of social media are dependent on adolescents’ own personal and psychological characteristics and social circumstances,” the APA notes. “Intersecting with the specific content, features, or functions that are afforded within many social media platforms.”
Despite mounting pressure from lawmakers and child safety activists to do something about Big Tech’s perceived effect on child mental health, the APA report claims “causal associations” directly linking adolescent social media use to negative health outcomes are still a rarity in available research. Instead, the report says kids’ online experiences are more likely affected by who they choose to like and follow as well as the social contexts and environments in which they were raised.
“While politicians are racing ahead with proposals based on the premise that simply encountering content on social media is causing ... harms, the APA notes that the actual research is far less conclusive and far more nuanced than lawmakers’ rhetoric,” Fight for the Future Executive Director Evan Greer said. “Without proper research, we can’t meaningfully evaluate the tradeoffs.”
Social science researchers and advocates have hotly debated the exact degree to which social media affects kids’ mental health for years, but some rudimentary consensus, and calls for action, have finally begun to emerge. Earlier this year, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy told CNN he believed the 13-year-old sign-up age cutoff from many social media companies was simply too young because children that age is still “developing their identity.”
“I, personally, based on the data I’ve seen, believe that 13 is too early,” Murthy said. “If parents can band together and say you know, as a group, we’re not going to allow our kids to use social media until 16 or 17 or 18 or whatever age they choose, that’s a much more effective strategy in making sure your kids don’t get exposed to harm early.”
President Biden echoed that sentiment during his State of the Union address in February where he urged tech companies to limit the amount of data they collect from children and called on Congress to pass legislation banning targeting advertising against children.
“We must finally hold social media companies accountable for the experiment they are running on our children for profit,” Biden said
A Politico report released last month estimates more than 27 different bills have been proposed in at least 16 different state houses all trying to get at the issue of kids’ online safety, though often from markedly different angles. Many of those bills coalesce around issues like restricting target advertising to children or banning allegedly addictive social media designs. The bills often diverge, however, around the issue of mandated parental guidance over kids to access these platforms.
Arkansas and Utah have both passed legislation requiring parents to grant permission for a child to use a social media account. In the latter case, the laws would go a step further and prohibit users under the age of 18 from accessing social media apps between 10:30 PM and 6:30 AM. Rights groups like Fight for the Future and The Center for Democracy & Technology vigorously oppose the age verification techniques and parental monitoring stipulations in the bills, and say they would “make kids less safe, and would be weaponized to attack.”