Teens and screens

How to safeguard young people's well-being on social media

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Social media can be a mixed bag for teenagers. Young people can benefit from online friendships, especially if they feel isolated in real life — for reasons ranging from racial or sexual identity to learning disabilities and geographic isolation.

But research also suggests mental health risks for young social media users — such as increased anxiety, depression, sleep disruption, and struggles with body image and self-esteem. Exposure to cyberbullying and hate-based content are also threats.

Teens understand this pro-and-con balance better than many adults think, according to Stanford Medicine’s Vicki Harrison, program director at the Stanford Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing. She has advice on how parents and teens can work together toward healthier online lives.

A recent U.S. surgeon general’s advisory says social media platforms should embed safeguards for young people. How could that happen?

I would like to see more involvement of young people in the design of social media platforms they use. Our team, in collaboration with Stanford University’s design school, recently held a workshop on social media and youth mental health with local high school and college students. 

We discussed how several states are considering legislation to protect young people on social media platforms by verifying their ages, having stricter privacy settings enabled by default, minimizing tracking and more.

The big question is how to put such laws into practice. For instance, how should age verification happen, and will the voices of young people be considered? Do they want to have someone scan their faces to verify their ages, or do they want a parent or third-party vendor to verify that? What are the privacy implications of these options?

Participants discussed the tension between protecting young users and social media platforms’ freedom to share a wide variety of speech. We heard from young people who feel that, since algorithms already manipulate social media content to create a curated experience, their health and safety should be prioritized over platforms’ free speech or profit.

What conversations should parents have with their children about social media use?

I advise parents to delay access to social media as long as they feel they can. The longer your brain develops and your life experiences stack up before you begin using social media, the better outcomes you’ll have. I also advise that teens gain access to social media gradually.

It’s a good idea to develop a family media plan addressing key questions for teens: Are there rules for when you’ll access your device? Who is paying for it? What should you not do on your device? Where can you go for help if you get into trouble? Having those conversations up front and keeping the conversations going once they have access to social media is important.

What myths do you encounter about young people’s online lives?

That adolescents want to explore the deep corners of the internet, no matter how horrible. The reality is that they generally want a good experience online. Most turn to social media to laugh, play, connect and learn.

Other teens regard social media as a necessary evil that they join because all their friends are there. They say they lose social currency if they aren’t participating, but they don’t like a lot of what they encounter.

I have heard from girls that they don’t want to see so much content about fitness and losing weight. They don’t want that pressure; they just want to have fun and connect with their friends. They are open to adults putting in place commonsense, supportive guardrails. 

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Erin Digitale

Erin Digitale is the pediatrics senior science writer in the Office of Communications. Email her at digitale@stanford.edu.

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