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  • The EPPC report identified TikTok as the most risky platform for providing sexually-explicit content to children.  Tweet This
  • The most striking finding from the Wheatley report is that warm, responsive, and loving parenting is more important for promoting teen mental well-being than any specific parenting practice related to media use. Tweet This
  • The flourishing of children is not just about preventing exposure to dangerous content. It's about protecting development of the full child by facilitating meaningful, rewarding experiences. Tweet This

There is no question that technology has transformed the lives of teens. Over 95% of 13-17-year-olds have access to a smart phone, and current estimates suggest that teens spend 7-9 hours per day on screens. That reality has profound implications for parenting. Helping adolescents learn to regulate how much they use devices that pose risks—but that may feel more compelling to them than eating—is nothing short of daunting. And it is a task that has fallen almost entirely on the shoulders of parents. 

For nearly a decade, parents have been grappling with questions about when to allow a child access to a cell phone, when to let them to get on social media, how much to allow or restrict gaming, YouTube, and on and on. Even as we have fears about the potential negative impacts, most of us can’t help but ask if the effort to develop and enforce rules around technology use is worth it. 

We know adolescents need to learn to handle technology themselves. What role do we play in helping them do that? If there are risks, what are they? Do the risks warrant all the effort to regulate their screen use in a world with ubiquitous access? Can parents even make a difference? 

Psychology professor Jean Twenge touched off a cultural debate in 2017, when her Atlantic piece pointedly asked: “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” Twenge’s evidence of a link between extensive technology use—especially social media—and a dramatic increase in adolescent mental health challenges touched a nerve. A host of experts began weighing in, some of whom dismissed the possibility that the dramatic increase in adolescent depression, self-harm, and suicide might be the result of increased smartphone access and social media use during the same period. But the increase in cell phone access and social media use that paralleled a definitive increase in youth mental health challenges cannot be easily dismissed.

In the years since, a growing body of research, along with experience gained through therapeutic work with adolescents, seems to be coalescing around helpful answers. These findings are captured in two recently-released parental guides: The Ethics and Public Policy Center’s (EPPC), “Raising a Family in the Digital Age: A Technology Guide for Parents,” and the Wheatley Institution’s, “Teaching by Example: Media and Parenting Practices that Are and Are Not Related to Adolescent Mental Health.” The reports represent the range from more protectionist to guidance-based parenting approaches, but both confirm that media use is powerful, meriting thoughtful attention from parents in working with their children, and they provide research-grounded answers in how to do that. Certain media use patterns and parenting practices are consistently associated with mental health risks, while others are not. These guides help us know what to care about, how to care, and why.  

Increasing Recognition of the Dangers of Social Media

There is a reason President Biden has called on Washington to “hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they are conducting on our children for profit.” The EPPC family tech guide references multiple reports, including: Facebook’s own in-depth research revealing a link between Instagram use and mental health risks leaked by a whistleblower last year; a Forbes review of hundreds of recent TikTok livestreams in which viewers used comments “to urge young girls to perform acts” toeing the line of child pornography then rewarded them with gifts, money, or comments; and evidence of increased access to dangerous content promoting self-harm, suicide, eating disorders, sexual exploitation, and more to impressionable youth whose searches cause social media platform algorithms to serve up ever-stronger content. 

This may not be the intent of social media companies. But the reality is that these platforms are businesses seeking to perpetuate and expand use of their product for profit. In a profit-driven world without moral restraint, exploitation of the vulnerable for gain will happen. Inherent to the social media structure is the incentive to get views, likes, and comments, rewarding users for more engagement, including when it is extreme and dangerous. In such a climate, impressionable youth are especially vulnerable.

The bipartisan “Kids Online Safety Act,” which is currently before Congress, is an effort to address these realities by providing parents and kids with safeguards and tools to protect them, uncovering the “black box algorithms” that can feed dangerous content, and creating a duty for social media platforms to prevent and mitigate harms, including through dangerous content feeds. 

Some social media platforms appear to pose greater risk than others. The Wheatley report found that TikTok (31.75%) and Instagram (25.80%) were most popular among adolescents, followed by Facebook (19.24%) and Snapchat (10.79%). But Facebook appeared to be the least risky to use. Adolescents who preferred Facebook had the best body image, fewer mental health problems, and were less likely to report depression. While 87% of those who preferred Facebook had high body image scores, only 53% who preferred TikTok did. In a similar vein, only 48% of those who preferred Facebook reported high levels of depression, compared to 70% who preferred Twitter. The EPPC report identified TikTok as the most risky platform for providing sexually-explicit content to children, leading to a strong recommendation that parents not permit teens under 18 to have TikTok accounts. 

Of course, parents are in the strongest position to provide the education and protection adolescents need. The EPPC report provides an extensive review of resources that are available to protect children, including parental controls and other protective software or apps, as well as alternative technology options. In addition, the report lists boundaries suggested by practitioners that parents would be wise to consider, including: setting daily screen time limits for each child; not allowing computers, tablets or phones in children’s bedrooms, especially at night; and phone-free family meals. 

The Power of Responsive Parenting

Protecting children from media use, however, is not the key factor in protecting adolescent mental health. The most striking finding from the Wheatley report is that warm, responsive, and loving parenting is more important for promoting teen mental well-being than any specific parenting practice related to media use. Only 13% of children who reported that their parents showed high levels of responsiveness, comfort, and understanding also reported high levels of depression compared to 88% in the least-warm parent group. And only 1% of adolescents in the warmest parenting group showed behavioral problems compared with 94% with the lowest levels of responsive parenting. 

This finding is powerful. As the Wheatley report acknowledges, many of us are looking for the “magic formula” to guide our media practices and prevent children from experiencing negative outcomes. In reality, we will have the greatest impact through the warmth and connectedness we show. 

Interestingly, that includes monitoring our own use of media. Parental use of media more strongly predicted children’s mental health than children’s own social media use in the Wheatley study. In fact, adolescents whose parents were high social media users (more than 7 hours/day) were four times more likely to be depressed than adolescents whose parents were low social media users (less than 30 minutes/day). Some “technoference,” where parents appear to be distracted with their phones when adolescents are trying to get their attention, is common. But in the Wheatley report, as with other studies, high parental technoference was associated with a marked difference in adolescent health. 

The central role of warm and responsive parenting does not mean that protection and parental rules are not important. Adolescents seem to sense that. More than 60% of adolescents in the Wheatley study said they thought they spent too much time on social media, and half identified a problematic result connected to their social media use. Many need more help and support than they are receiving. Parental rules and restrictions, reflecting age-appropriate needs and capacities, can be incredibly helpful. As adolescents age, rules and restrictions will likely shift from direct monitoring and control to “practices that signal interest and attention.” In the process, parents provide the support adolescents need to develop the capacity for personal responsibility in their media use rather than inhibiting that capacity.   

In fact, the Wheatley report found that adolescents whose parents had the highest levels of rules and restrictions reported the highest rates of depression. And teens who felt they had to hide what they did on social media from their parents also reported the highest levels of depression. The cross-sectional nature of the study makes it impossible to determine if it was adolescent depression that caused stricter rules, or rules that predicted depression. What does appear clear is that a culture “of love and support,” where adolescents feel safe coming to their parents to talk through their experiences with media, is most protective of mental health. 

How Teens Experience Social Media

In fact, what adolescents are experiencing as they use social media emerges as more important than the amount of time spent using it. In the Wheatley report, as with others, the age at which an adolescent received their first smartphone and the amount of time spent on social media were not reliable predictors of mental health challenges in and of themselves. One adolescent might spend an hour on social media and have an extremely negative experience, while another might spend four hours making meaningful connections with friends and family, and leave “feeling supported and loved.” In this study, the most important thing was not how long they spent, but what they experienced as they spent that time. 

Specifically, making comparisons with others while using social media was particularly bad for body image. Only 35% of teens who said they never compared themselves to others reported high rates of depression, while 86% who said they always compared themselves to others reported high rates of depression. Of course, we need to take seriously what it means to ask an adolescent girl who is developmentally impressionable and immersed in a highly sexualized culture not to compare herself to others in a forum seemingly designed for comparison. And boys tended to report even higher levels of social comparisons than girls. 

Girls between the ages of 11-13 appeared to be especially vulnerable to negative impacts from social media use in research conducted by University of Cambridge psychologist, Amy Orben. The same pattern emerged later for boys ages 14 to 15. As the EPPC report notes, social media can exacerbate the normal insecurities of youth, cementing a fragile sense of self in a culture of performativity in which they are “liked” or “not liked” every time they post. That reality may be particularly challenging at certain developmental periods and should inform parental rules and restrictions. That is why the Wheatley report suggests a “child-specific approach to smartphone timing that prioritizes maturational factors.”

Helping Children Flourish Online 

Undergirding both reports is a recognition that the flourishing of children is not just about preventing exposure to dangerous content. It is also about protecting development of the full child by facilitating meaningful and rewarding experiences, and encouraging their capacity to communicate and interact in a productive way, along with the ability to regulate media use responsibly and independently. What adolescents need most are real, warm relationships with parents and others who know them and love them. Social media can tap into that profound developmental need to be seen and known, but as Andy Crouch insightfully noted in a recent interview with IFS, it also gives the appealing sensation of control over how, when, and by whom we are seen. During critical formative years, this “cleaned up simulation of social likeability” may keep adolescents from experiencing what they really need—relationships between real, embodied beings. The research-informed insights in these two reports can help guide parents in how to protect that process while living in a world where media use is our reality. 

Jenet Erickson is a Research Fellow of The Wheatley Institution and a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Family Studies.