upset teen girls looking at smartphone

Social Media Safety Tips for Teens

May 12, 2023

Social media, a source of innumerable dance moves and cat videos, has also shown itself to be a source of darker attitudes, impulses, and behaviors. On May 23, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory urging action to create healthier online environments to protect children, citing growing evidence that social media poses risks to young people's mental health and well-being.

For impressionable teenagers who are at critical stages of brain development, are still forming ideas about themselves, and want to feel validated by their peers, the lure of social media can often seem irresistible.

We asked Zachary Blumkin, PsyD, senior clinical director of the Psychiatry Faculty Practice Organization and assistant professor of medical psychology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, to explain some of the pitfalls of social media and offer suggestions for how teens (and their parents) can engage with social media safely.

There has been a lot in the news about a mental health epidemic among teens. In terms of symptoms and number of patients, what have you seen in your practice?

During the pandemic and more recently, there was clearly a rise in mental health issues. Additionally, the level at which folks are struggling seems to be more severe. That said, we had seen an increase in mental health issues among teens going back to 2012.

And when you look at the data, the trend is very clear. The pandemic likely exacerbated what had been rising all along. And we know, too, that it's disproportionately impacting minoritized teens such as Native American teens, Black teens, LGBTQ teens, and female teens as well.

To what do you attribute the prevalence of mental health issues among teens today? Is there a primary driver, or are there many factors?  

Regarding primary drivers for mental health issues in teens, we don't really know that there is one. Whether it was the social isolation, academic disruption, loss of caregivers to COVID-19, parental job loss, or abuse that resulted from an increase in adults' substance use, we know that the pandemic negatively impacted teens who were already struggling and disproportionately impacted minoritized teens.

We also know that there are many stressors bombarding teens online, such as mass violence, global warming, natural disasters, and political polarization. It is the frequency and intensity of these stressors that can be really problematic, insofar as how teens receive and process the information and ultimately understand it.

Studies have linked depression and anxiety among teens with the amount of time they spend on social media. For teens, what are the pitfalls of social media?  

The research on social media and how it impacts teens is a little bit conflictual. But what we do know is the amount of time that teens spend online can negatively impact them. We also know that for certain teens, such as those with anxiety, depression, body issues, or victims of cyberbullying or social isolation, engaging in social media can be especially fraught. Those teens can really be at higher risk with more time spent online, and it's more likely to negatively impact them. That's a problem that we're worried about.

Another pitfall related to social media and teen mental health is the reality of teens who are struggling with suicidal behaviors or self-harm behaviors. We all need to understand that social media, either on purpose or inadvertently through the contagion effect, can reinforce those very dangerous and problematic behaviors.

Is there something in the adolescent brain that leaves teens particularly vulnerable to the pitfalls of social media?  

We know the adolescent brain shifts around 10 to 12 years old when teens start looking for social rewards or social interaction as a way to feel better. And there's a biological mechanism behind that; there are certain neurotransmitters that fire and impact the reward center in the brain when teens are on social media.

In-person comments—the kind you get when you go to school and someone compliments your new shoes or a hairdo—aren’t nearly as powerful as going online and getting a thousand likes from individuals you know, or even from individuals you don't know! So, being online really reinforces the use of social media.

What are some steps parents can take to help their teen successfully navigate social media and mitigate its effects?

It's important to realize that there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution for everyone. Everyone is different and social media impacts different people in different ways. That said, there are quite a few researchers in my field who would argue that children shouldn't start using social media until they're 16 years old.

That may not be doable for some families. So it's really important that parents make themselves aware of what platforms their teen is using. They need to provide a lot of supervision, as well as understand a platform’s privacy settings. And they need to be sensitive to how their teen’s particular issues could be impacted by social media.

And finally, make sure to speak with your teens about social media. Talk about what is not okay, as per your values, and talk openly and without judgment about the research around the effects of social media, as well as your own use. 

Is some exposure to and participation in social media OK? Are there any positive aspects to social media? 

Certainly, some exposure to social media is OK, and it's inevitable anyway. If you think about it, connecting with family members and friends that live far away, or meeting individuals with shared activities and passions, can be a really nice way for teens to use social media in a safe and healthy way.

What about younger kids? Do you have any recommendations for young children and their parents for using social media? 

For the most part, younger kids really shouldn't be using social media. And I recognize that sometimes parents feel the pressure to allow it. If you do have a younger kid who you feel comfortable using social media, it's imperative that you monitor the platform they're using and make sure it is age-appropriate. You want to understand the privacy settings and you want to talk to them openly about the risks that social media poses.

Can you recommend any resources for parents who want to learn more?

Parents might begin with Family Online Safety Institute and ConnectSafely. There is also Common Sense Media, which reviews all kinds of media (books, games, podcasts) with an eye to identifying age-appropriate content for younger consumers.

In addition, there are resources for families in a moment of crisis. There's a new 988 suicide hotline that's been available since July 2022. The Trevor Project is great for families who have teens or younger children in the LGBTQ population. And Call BlackLine was developed for families of color.