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In Real Life (IRL), Can We Protect Teens from the Emotional Impact of Social Media?

YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, X, Reddit, BeReal. A majority of American teens visit these social media platforms at least once daily, and 30% say they are on them almost constantly. Their ubiquity is unquestionable, and teens’ connection with them seemingly unshakeable, but the impact on emotional health is still being explored.

Recent reports found frequent social media use may be associated with changes in the developing brain, potentially affecting emotional regulation and impulse control. “In early adolescence, when identities are forming, brain development is especially susceptible to social pressures, peer opinions, and peer comparison,” according to the U.S. Surgeon General. Of particular concern is evidence linking social media use to body image dissatisfaction, eating disorders, poor sleep and depressive symptoms.

Also noted however, are the benefits of social media, which include positive interactions among teenagers who find an online community of peers with a common interest or identity. Polling has shown a majority of teens and parents gave social media high marks for connecting them with support in tough times, giving them a place to show creativity, and feeling more connected with friends’ lives.

To keep youngsters safe, experts advise a combination of limits, discussion and coaching around social media use. “When children are young, hold the reins tightly by establishing specific expectations and rules,” advises psychologist Gilly Kahn. “Build trust and loosen the reins as they get older to allow less supervision…but let them know you’ll tighten it up again if they break your trust in any way.”

While a proliferation of parental control apps are available, like Bark which sends notifications when alert words are used (e.g. drugs, suicide), Kahn notes: “These are considered really invasive by teens, and if they want to get on social media, they’re going to find a way to do it.”

Instead, start with a family media plan to set rules about online time, content boundaries, and not disclosing personal information. Continue to have age-appropriate conversations with youngsters about who they’re connecting with and how they’re spending their time online. Try and keep family mealtimes and in-person gatherings device-free to help youngsters build social bonds. Consider restricting the use of phones, tablets, and computers for at least an hour before bedtime and through the night to help ensure restful sleep. Finally, model positive behavior on your own social media accounts.