What we should and should not do about kids and social media

Chances are if you’ve read the news in the past year you’ve seen a headline like these: It’s time to go nuclear. Mark Zuckerberg is choosing profit over children. We need to ban kids from social media … And who could disagree with them? After all, you must be some kind of monster if you don’t want to protect children.

Society’s reaction to new technology is alarmingly cyclical. When a new technology is introduced and becomes mainstream, there is almost always an outcry against it. Video games make you violent. TV rots your brain. Everything we learn falls by the wayside when some new, more alarming technology is introduced.

Today, the panic is about social media and mental health. Of course children deserve protection. The question is not whether children should be protected. The question is how they should be protected.

The rise of social media seems to coincide with a rise in teenage mental illness and self-harm. The only issue is, the direction of causation is tough to parse. Some research has found a clear negative relationship in that more social media leads to more mental health problems. Other work has found that this is only the case for girls, while boys actually need some social media. To complicate it even further, some research has found no relationship at all when activity logs instead of survey questions track usage.

To be clear, the rates of suicide and self-harm among teenagers are on the rise. The loss of someone you care about is a terrifying reality to confront — especially when it is someone so young. Seeing young people struggle is terrifying; however, we should remember our tendency to panic and remember that, without seriously considering the underlying causes, our attempts to help may very well make the situation worse.

So what do teenagers say about social media?

According to reporting from Pew, most teenagers use social media to connect with others or learn new things. Further, the very same documents that the Wall Street Journal used to condemn Facebook indicate that 2 in 5 girls report feeling better about themselves after using Instagram. Overall, teenagers report having a positive experience with social media more often than not.

The urge to leap into action when there is a crisis is strong, especially when it is one that affects younger generations. It is important to remember that, no matter how well intentioned, our attempts to help can backfire. Considering how nuanced the teenage experience with tech is, a complete ban could cause more harm than good.

Instead of trying to ban tech, leaders and parents should be looking to help teens better understand and manage this tech. Here are three suggestions I would endorse.

First, set screen time boundaries. Too much time spent online can be detrimental to children’s emotional well-being, but so can complete restriction. The actual healthy amount will vary by child, but researchers have provided a valuable starting point for parents when setting boundaries.

Second, have conversations with your child about their tech usage. Not all screen time is made equal. Time spent using devices to draw, learn and engage directly with peers is not the same as passively consuming content. Conversations are key to understanding how your child engages with technology and what issues they may be encountering.

Third, ensure that screen time does not disrupt activities essential to health — such as exercise, sleep and social interaction. Sleep is an important aspect of health for everyone, but especially teenagers. If your child is sacrificing sleep for time online, then you should be stepping in to help encourage them to engage in healthier behaviors.

Given that the research is not as conclusive as the critics make it sound, we should proceed with caution. Otherwise all we might end up doing is erasing the benefits of social media and creating new problems for those we are trying to help.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.