One of the leading US mental health organizations, the American Psychological Association (APA), has issued its first ever health advisory report on social media usage for youth and adolescents. Published on Tuesday, the 11-page brief speaks in broad terms regarding the habits of children and teens on platforms such as TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter, describing them as “not inherently beneficial or harmful to young people.” Rather, the APA argues social media’s influences on minors are only part of a much wider, complex array of factors, and “likely depend on what teens can do and see online, teens’ pre-existing strengths or vulnerabilities, and the contexts in which they grow up.”
In short, the APA reiterates that, like every other aspect of psychological development, it’s difficult to pinpoint and quantify any single influence on an individual’s brain evolution. Instead, the association focuses on two major contributors to how social media can potentially affect younger users—parental oversight and awareness, as well as a platform’s own algorithmic structures.
The APA recommends parents regularly review and discuss their children’s social media usage, particularly during early adolescence—usually defined as between 10- and 14-years-old. Educating children and teens on social media literacy and usage alongside fostering healthy online habits and relationships are also considered key methods of maintaining a safe experience on platforms like TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
Meanwhile, the APA stresses the responsibility does not rest solely on minors’ parents. The advisory’s authors note that the tech companies’ algorithms determining how, when, and why users see certain content are built upon “centuries of racist policy and discrimination encoded.” Social media therefore often becomes an “incubator” of these inherent biases, and which can introduce and exacerbate extremist socio-political and racist ideals. “The resulting potential impact is far reaching, including physical violence offline, as well as threats to well-being,” adds the APA.
Speaking to PopSci, Jeremy Birnholtz, a professor of communication studies at Northwestern University focusing on LGBTQ+ adolescent social media usage and the head of the school’s Social Media Lab, says he believes the APA’s “measured document” is a step in the right direction, but argues some of the guidelines are potentially difficult to follow for parents.
In one section of the report, for example, the APA advises limiting the amount of time younger users spend comparing themselves to others the see on social media, “particularly around beauty- or appearance-related content,” pointing towards its potentially influence on “poorer body image, disordered eating, and depressive symptoms, particularly among girls.”
“The guideline is ‘teens should avoid using social media for social comparison.’ And it’s like, well, what does that mean? You shouldn’t look at your friends’ vacation photos? You shouldn’t follow the influencers that all your friends follow? I don’t think that’s realistic,” says Birnholtz.
Like the APA’s report, Birnholtz also argues social media’s negative effects are often symptomatic of broader, real world issues. Racism can be baked into social media—while that’s true, it’s also baked into society,” they say of platforms’ algorithmic biases. “Certain things like social comparison, no question, can be exacerbated by social media. But to suggest that they are a function of [it] is problematic, I think.”
Birnholtz goes on to explain that while it’s vital to take the APA’s suggestions into account, it’s important to remember the origins of many social media issues. “You’re detaching problems with social media from the problems that they represent in the broader society,” says Birnholtz. “You can fix it on social media, but as long as it’s in the [real world], you’re not going to fix it.”