For Parents Fearful Of Their Teens’ Social Media Use, Here’s Some Hope — And Advice

If you have a teen girl, chances are she’s spending hours online every day — and you’re probably spending at least as many hours worrying about her safety there.

We’ve known for some time that social media can be detrimental to anyone’s mental health, and particularly that of teen girls. Meta, the company that owns Instagram and Facebook, earned the distrust of many parents in the fall of 2021 when a Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that the company’s own research linked Instagram use with girls’ disordered eating, body image issues, depression and suicidal thoughts.

New research from Common Sense Media shows that teen girls themselves are well aware their social media use can be a problem. The survey included responses from over 1,300 girls ages 11 to 15, with questions about YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, and messaging apps such iMessage, GroupMe and WhatsApp.

The results of the survey confirm “that we are in the middle of a youth mental health crisis in the United States,” James Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, told HuffPost.

“Social media platforms have a huge role in that youth mental health crisis, particularly for teen girls,” he said.

A full 98% of the girls surveyed had used one or more social media platforms. The most widely used were YouTube (85%), TikTok (73%), Instagram (59%) and Snapchat (57%).

Girls reported spending more than two hours every day using some of the most popular apps. TikTok ranked highest, with users reporting an average of 2 hours and 39 minutes of daily use, and YouTube was a close second, at 2 hours and 33 minutes per day. A girl using multiple apps could easily spend a total of eight hours or more on social media every day.

When asked whether the overall impact of these apps on people their age was positive or negative, the girls were split, and there were significant differences among apps.

The platform they rated most highly was YouTube, with 65% saying they thought it had a mostly positive effect, 5% saying it had a mostly negative effect and 30% saying its effects were neutral.

In comparison, 43% said TikTok had a mostly positive effect, and 26% said its impact was mostly negative. Forty-five percent of TikTok users said they felt “addicted” to it or used it more than they intended on at least a weekly basis. Thirty-seven percent reported the same feeling of “addiction” to Snapchat, along with 34% for YouTube and 33% for Instagram.

Critically, the report found that all girls do not bear this negative burden equally. Those who are already struggling with their mental health appear to be most vulnerable.

Girls who reported experiencing moderate to severe depressive symptoms were more likely than others to say that social media platforms made life worse overall for people their age. A troubling majority of these girls — 75% on Instagram and 69% on TikTok — said they encounter suicide-related content at least monthly.

Parents of a depressed child might wonder, then, if keeping their child away from social media would be helpful. But it seems that in some cases, social media can be a positive force in girls’ lives. Of the girls with moderate to severe depressive symptoms, an even larger majority — 80% on Instagram and 78% on TikTok — reported coming across helpful mental health resources on those platforms.

Girls who reported mild depressive symptoms were more likely than those without depressive symptoms to say their lives would be worse without YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat or messaging apps. (This trend did not hold true for Instagram.)

Almost half of the girls of color in the survey said they encountered racist content at least monthly on TikTok or Instagram (48% for both platforms). However, 71% for TikTok and 72% for Instagram said they found positive, affirming content related to race at least monthly.

Girls who identified as LGBTQ+ were approximately twice as likely as those who didn’t to encounter hate speech related to sexuality or gender identity. At the same time, LGBTQ+ youth were more likely than their peers to report that they frequently connect with others who share their interests or identities on social media, and they reported having more of these kinds of connections online than in real life.

Dr. Michael Rich, a pediatrician who runs the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital, told HuffPost he’s seen other surveys that showed the same spectrum of experiences.

Not only are there significant numbers of kids reporting that social media is both a positive and a negative force, but kids also say that their own experiences on social media are a mix of good and bad.

“This is very individual-specific to the nature of the young person who’s using it and to their own social-emotional status at that point in time,” Rich said. “If they are feeling down on themselves, they’re going to go to social media and pick out all the things that everybody else is better at than they are.”

Parents have a responsibility to “help their kids learn to use these very powerful tools in effective ways,” Rich said.

Steyer contends that companies, too, have a responsibility to rein in some of the more troublesome design features of social media apps, such as location settings, public accounts, private messaging, filters and endless scrolling.

But features that can cause problems also have uses, and even upsides. A public account can invite the attention of strangers, but some of them might be other kids looking to connect with someone who shares their LGBTQ+ identity, for example.

Where does all this leave parents? How are we supposed to sift through the various positive and negative possibilities contained in our kids’ smartphones and figure out what course of action is best? It can feel hopelessly complex, and far from our control.

But Rich believes solutions are within reach. Any positive work we are already doing as parents to build strong relationships with open and honest communication will have a protective effect for our kids when they’re online.

The best tool parents have to combat the threats associated with social media, Rich says, is about as low-tech as it gets: your dining room table.

If your kids are comfortable talking to you about what’s going on in their lives, both in person and online, you’re in a position to help guide them, and they are more likely to come to you for help.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you navigate the world of social media with your children.

Speak openly about mental health and social media use

If you want to help your kids when they’re struggling, you have to have a sense of where they are emotionally in their day-to-day lives. Ask how they’re doing in a way that is open and nonjudgmental. Make it clear that you’re interested in hearing what’s really going on, and don’t belittle their concerns.

You can also speak frankly about your own mental health, noting times when you might be struggling with something and talking openly about where you seek help in those situations.

Be equally forthcoming about your own social media use and curious about theirs. Talk about how seeing certain posts makes you feel, and ask them what they think of the videos they’re watching. Are they interested in the creators’ humor and creativity? Or are they commenting first on the way their bodies look? This is key information for you to have in order to care for your child.

Make decisions about technology based on your individual child’s needs

You won’t be able to keep social media out of their lives forever, but you do get to decide when to get your child their first phone. The better you know your child, the better a position you’ll be in to consider their maturity and mental health and make the choice that best suits your family.

There are also some creative solutions.

“With the realization that 99% of what’s on a smartphone is distraction,” said Rich, “[some] people are getting rid of smartphones for kids and giving them flip phones.”

If your child is struggling emotionally, it may make sense to limit their exposure to social media. Ideally, you would come up with a plan together to help them stay well and feel safe, and revise this plan regularly based on how they are doing emotionally.

For some kids, having connections to peers, especially those with whom they share identities, may be particularly important during rough times.

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of safety by parental controls

It’s possible to set parental controls that will limit (some) exposure to inappropriate material like pornography. This is probably worth doing, but don’t kid yourself into thinking that your job is done there. Our kids are digital natives and can figure out a way around pretty much any control setting when they put their minds to it.

You can also make agreements with your kids about which apps they can use, or insist on having access to all of their social media accounts. These may even be part of a contract that you draw up and discuss with them when they get their first phone.

It’s important to have a discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of individual apps, but remember that it won’t take much for your child to access any platforms they want to without you knowing. They may delete an app so it doesn’t appear on their home screen, but then access it through their web browser. And it’s common for kids to make multiple social media profiles — one to share with you and one for their friends, for example.

Make screen-free family time a ritual in your home

By using the family settings, you can limit the number of hours kids have each day to use their phones. But an even better way to limit screen time is to get kids engaged in activities that aren’t online.

A bonus of doing activities together, like family dinners, walks and game nights, is having an opportunity to connect with them.

While teens often act like they don’t want to talk to us, that’s usually not the case, Rich said.

When he is with a young patient and the parent leaves the exam room, he will often ask: “What can your parents do better?”

“Almost always the first thing out of their mouths is ‘Pay more attention to me. Listen to me,’” he said. “So I urge parents, when you ask ― ‘What did you do today?’ ‘Nothing.’ ‘How was it?’ ‘OK.’ — keep asking. Show your interest, something will come out.”

Keep their phones out of their bedrooms at night

Another downside of our phones, for users of all ages, is how much they interfere with our sleep. A “quick check” of social media can easily turn into an hour of scrolling, regardless of your maturity level.

“I see lots of kids for whom sleep is a problem as a result [of social media],” said Rich.

One solution some families use is to keep chargers in the living room, so every family member has to deposit their devices there before they head to bed. We’re all used to using our phones as alarms, but old-fashioned alarm clocks work just as well.

Another advantage of keeping a kid’s phone out of their room is that they’ll be less likely to look for the kind of material you’d like them to stay away from when others are around.

Warn them about specific dangers they may encounter

It’s awkward to tell your child that they will be approached by people who may ask them to send a nude photo. But, Rich points out, “if that conversation is too uncomfortable for the parent to have with the child, the child probably shouldn’t have the device or the platform.”

An alarming percentage of girls who took the Common Sense Media survey ― 58% on Instagram, 57% on Snapchat and 46% on TikTok ― reported being contacted by a stranger online in a way that made them “uncomfortable.”

You’ll need to prepare your child for this likelihood, and talk about protections you can put in place, such as blocking unsolicited contact and making accounts private.

Finally, make sure your child knows that if they do encounter danger online, the first thing they should do is come to you. They need to know that you value their safety above all.

The FBI issued a warning in February about sextortion cases involving kids, some of which resulted in kids dying by suicide. In such cases, a stranger, often using an account in another country, asks a child (usually a boy) to send explicit images of themselves. Once the images have been received, the stranger threatens to share them unless the child sends payment.

“It’s kind of like when you send your kid driving off to a party,” Rich said. “You say, ‘Look, if you drink any alcohol or do any drugs, I want you to call me and have me pick you up. I do not want you driving. And, yes, I’d rather you not do it, but I would rather you be alive.’”

While there is much to fear online, there is also much to be gained. Kids can build authentic relationships with peers from all over the world, and explore their identities and interests with unprecedented freedom.

“As a pediatrician, one of the occupational hazards is that I’m an optimist,” Rich said. “And I believe that if we can start to learn to use social media in authentic, true ways, that it can be an instrument of peace, then it can be kids around the world who connect with each other on their commonalities and are less prone to be taught to hate somebody for their differences.”

If you or someone you know needs help, dial 988 or call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also get support via text by visiting Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.