Editor’s Note: Ana Homayoun is the founder of Green Ivy Educational Consulting, a Silicon Valley-based academic advising firm, and the author of four books, including “Social Media Wellness” and the forthcoming “Erasing the Finish Line: The New Blueprint for Success Beyond Grades and College Admission.” You can follow her on Twitter. The views expressed in this commentary are the writer’s own. Read more opinion on CNN.
We’re having the wrong conversation around teen social media use.
Last month, the US surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, issued an urgent and extraordinary public warning that social media poses “a profound risk of harm” to young people. Murthy told CNN, “We’re in the middle of a youth mental health crisis, and I’m concerned that social media is contributing to the harm that kids are experiencing.”
With guidance like this, it’s not surprising that much of our society’s approach to social media use has been rooted in fear, anger and frustration. But, while understandable, this attitude can be counterproductive and even harmful to promoting the behavioral changes needed to protect youth. It’s particularly important for parents to be aware of what actually works now that the school year and teacher supervision is ending.
Teens use screens an average of seven hours and 22 minutes a day outside of school (plus another hour for homework), according to a 2019 study by Common Sense Media, an advocacy group that tries to make technology safer for kids. Some 95% of teens are on some form of social media, according to the Pew Research Center, and 35% say they are using at least one online platform “almost constantly.” As an academic adviser who works with middle school, high school and college students on executive function skills, I routinely encounter students who spend 55 hours or more per week on some form of social media.
Caregivers are right to be concerned that social media use and, in particular, troubling posts can be detrimental to their kids and teens. Researchers have found that the heavy use of social media has negative mental health consequences, including increasing loneliness and sensitivity to emotional, physical or social stimuli. Exposure to certain kinds of problematic content is correlated with disordered eating, depressive symptoms and self-harm. When social media use becomes excessive (the definition of which can admittedly hard to provide) or problematic, it has been linked to problems with sleep, attention and belonging.
But given that this technology is here to stay, we should be supporting children in developing their internal motivation to make good choices whether or not we’re watching. We should be engaging with them to find solutions that promote their overall well-being rather than simply trying to restrain them or make them feel bad about using social media.
Teenagers’ focus on socializing coupled with their incomplete brain development suggests that effective self-regulation can feel nearly impossible for them without outside support. Adolescence is a time of both heightened stress exposure and increased plasticity of the brain, making it an extremely vulnerable period. From the ages of 10 to 19, the neural systems associated with impulse control, emotional regulation and moderating social behavior undergo rapid growth, which may lead to greater emotional sensitivity to the dynamics of acceptance, rejection and peer influence.
Efforts to block sites or ban apps are misguided because in general scare tactics can have the effect of reducing teenagers’ own motivation for responsible behavior. As a result, many teens fixate on finding workarounds and hiding their social media activity from the trusted adults who could offer assistance if something that feels uncomfortable or inappropriate happens online.
The fearmongering headlines also miss the ways that many teens benefit from communicating online, as the surgeon general’s report also noted. Social media can be especially important for those who feel marginalized and isolated. Murthy cites positive findings across sexual, racial and gender minorities that social media can be a forum for social connection and a place for encountering positive or identity-affirming content on several social media platforms.
In my work, I’ve observed that we can get students more motivated to be organized, manage online distractions and opt-out of certain apps altogether if we recognize that students often use social media out of a desire for support and connection and offer guidance in engaging with it responsibly.
The first step is to acknowledge to teens how challenging it is to limit social media use. When we recognize how likes, comments and followers have created a new barometer for popularity, and acknowledge how influencer culture seems to offer real business possibilities, we can encourage their thoughtful reflection and behavioral change from a place of empathy, compassion and understanding.
To do so, we can start by asking teenagers in our lives open-ended questions about their personal interests and goals. The teens who walk into my office for academic advising or whom I’ve met at schools around the country frequently admit that they need more sleep, want to do well in school and hope to excel in athletic and extracurricular activities. More likely than not, they would like less drama and anxiety in their lives. Finding ways to help teens see they have choices in how they spend time online allows them to critically evaluate their own overuse and identify solutions.
That means also figuring out what they need in order to complete their work. One of my students chose to start using an app that blocked distractions when she was doing her work. Within weeks, she managed to get to bed hours earlier each night. Another decided to delete all social media apps except one used to communicate with friends.
In the end, I’ve found the most effective approach is helping tweens and teens to become savvy consumers. Before downloading a new app, I encourage teens to look up why the app was founded, whether there are any reports of privacy issues or data breaches and whether there have been safety concerns. When given a sense of agency, they are more likely to feel self-determination and themselves work toward choosing more positive experiences while opting out of those that feel draining or harmful.
This approach is supported by research showing intrinsic motivation – the internal desire to do something – flourishes most in situations where students feel a sense of autonomy (that they have choices), a sense of competence (that they are able to make good choices) and a sense of belonging. When students feel controlled and pressured, as can often happen with social media scare tactics, they are more likely to resist.