What we know about social media’s effects on kids

Last week, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy warned about the risks social media could pose to the well-being of children and adolescents.

It’s a topic the American Psychological Association has also been researching. The organization recently released recommendations based on the growing body of research into how social media is affecting young people.

Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino spoke to Mitch Prinstein, the APA’s chief science officer, about social media’s effects on identity, relationships, sleep and more.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Mitch Prinstein: At some point we realized, if you’re not asking about their online experiences, you’re not really capturing their peer experiences anymore. I mean, the vast majority of kids are spending the vast majority of their time interacting with peers mediated by technology now.

Meghan McCarty Carino: How does development affect social media use? And how does social media use affect development?

Prinstein: You know, young kids 10, 11, 12, I mean, they are especially susceptible to not knowing what’s real, what’s not, making those overgeneralization errors, really striving to find an identity. But also, their brains in particular are not fully matured, and the brain doesn’t develop all at once. It’s actually region by region. So one of the first regions that develops at puberty is the part that makes us really crave social feedback. But the last area to develop is where we have our self-control, our ability to stop our impulses. So you’ve got this interesting period from about 10 to 25 when kids are so striving and yearning for likes and feedback, and the artificial intelligence, kind of, it’s kind of unfair, it really capitalizes on these not fully developed brains to seek that now 24/7. And it’s not until we’re adults that we find ourselves able to shut it down, or you know, go to sleep or go back to work. That’s probably a big way that development is changing how people use social media.

McCarty Carino: Now, at this point, we’re sort of more than a decade into the social media era. Tell me about some of the research that has been done on how social media affects young people. Is there sort of a main through line to it?

Prinstein: Yeah, I mean, there’s been a lot. And I think that I would say there’s two main themes. One is what is the way in which our interactions with this very new social context, changing the kinds of relationships we have, the kinds of ways that our brain develops, our identity develops? But the second and just as important is with all that time on a device, what are we not doing now that we used to be doing? Sleep, physical exercise, face-to-face or voice-to-voice interaction — those are really important things, and the absence of them, of course, is going to also affect development.

McCarty Carino: Tell me more about how this affects sleep for young people.

Prinstein: The No. 1 reason why kids are having disrupted sleep onset or disrupted sleep over the night is social media. I think we can say that extremely clearly. And now we can also say that, you know, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine says teens, because of the brain organization, should be getting eight to nine hours of sleep, and like 20% of teens are getting that. So a remarkably low level. And what we can now say is that that disrupted sleep is literally changing both the size of brains and how well brains function because it’s interfering with that big reorganization process.

McCarty Carino: What are some areas where we see what is available on social media causing problems for some young people? Like the actual content that’s on social media?

Prinstein: Yeah, it’s the content, and also it’s the functions. So as far as the content, you know, artificial intelligence now drives a normal teen having normal questions and normal insecurities about their body shape to sites that teach them how to engage in anorexia behaviors or to engage in self-cutting, and how to hide that from their parents. And most parents don’t realize that, but that’s obviously incredibly concerning. We see exposure to cyberhate. We see also the ways the functions play a role. So when we see those likes or those followers, you know, it changes the way we interpret information, and every adult can relate to this. You see a post and there’s 10 likes on it. Do you think, “Wow, there’s 10 peculiar people who like that” or do you think, “Oh, that’s probably half the country that feels that way”? You know, that overgeneralization issue is particularly tricky for kids because they’re in the process of trying to judge what everyone else thinks. And now they’re making these giant overgeneralization errors.

McCarty Carino: And how has all of this affected the quality of social interaction? I mean, these are tools that supposedly have the ability to help connect us.

Prinstein: Yeah, it’s ironic, right? I mean, these are supposed to make us feel socially connected. But our data shows that after a day of heavy social media use, kids actually report more loneliness rather than less. We’re also seeing, more anecdotally, but there’s now more and more research showing a remarkable amount of social anxiety among some teens because the social context is supposed to teach us how to engage in more sophisticated interactions, but with our devices and social media, we can crowdsource our texts and our posts to a bunch of people before we post them, we can take them down. And kids are having trouble with spontaneous and extemporaneous conversations, even just ordering food from a server at a restaurant is something that they’re feeling unprepared for now.

McCarty Carino: Do you have a sense as to how, you know, kid and teen use of social media has evolved over the years? As I said, you know, we’re sort of more than a decade into this social media era.

Prinstein: You know, when we started doing research in this area, we found a very different pattern. Now, we’re seeing that a lot of the more popular and socially competent kids are actually getting off social media. And that’s kind of an interesting pendulum swing because, you know, kids are smart. And they recognize that a lot of what people put on there may be fake, or at least they’re trying to put their best selves forward. And kids strive for the emotional intimacy and genuine companionship that all humans do, and they’re just not getting it. And they don’t like having to consistently promote their image in this kind of artificial way. So those who seem to feel comfortable doing so offline are just giving up on social media altogether now.

McCarty Carino: There have been some positive effects noted too. Can you tell me about some of those?

Prinstein: Absolutely, I’m glad you asked because, you know, I think some of the solutions about, “Let’s just take everyone off of it forever” is not consistent with the science and maybe a little bit shortsighted. I mean, particularly for those from underrepresented groups or identities that are not shared with many of their offline peers or their family members, social media seems to be providing a really essential source of social support or health information that not only is, is helpful to kids, but we’re actually seeing that among those experiencing mental health difficulties already, it might be protecting them from pretty severe negative outcomes like suicide attempts. We’re also seeing that young kids’ engagement on social media is leading to civic activism in a way that we just couldn’t do before social media. Kids are leading us in some incredibly important societal issues and having a voice that’s very powerful when they connect with their age mates. And that’s really important as well. And finally, we’re seeing that kids seem to have more diversity in their friendships online than they do offline. And of course, that’s a great thing too.

McCarty Carino: What can families and parents do to facilitate some of these good things while mitigating some of the harms from social media?

Prinstein: I mean, I think that this is a complicated issue, and it’s not going away, right? Social media is probably here to stay forever. So we need many different stakeholders to all play a role. We need policymakers, we need tech companies, we need kids, educators and certainly parents themselves to all do something here. Given that it’s not going anywhere, we probably want to make sure that parents are following what the research says, which is a two-pronged approach. First, parents need to find those screen controls and set them to what they feel is best for their child, maybe a half an hour at most on those particular apps during the weekdays, maybe an hour on the weekends. You can even set parameters to control the content. And if those are harder to find on your phone or on these platforms than they should be, then speak up because we’re the customers and the devices and the platforms will hopefully change based on consumer demand.

The second issue is that we really need to be engaged in what’s called active monitoring. That doesn’t mean looking over your kid’s shoulder every minute, but talking with them about, what do you see? And what does it mean? And why do you think people post those things? And do you think everyone that likes it actually agrees with that statement? The reason why I say that is because, and I’m guilty of this as well, but as adults who grew up without those, sometimes we kind of tease our kids about how they’re constantly on their phones, and we joke with them about how, you know, they’re obsessed with it. But sometimes when we do that, we might be accidentally sending the message that we think it’s ridiculous and silly and don’t bother talking with us about it. And instead, we might want to really express some curiosity and some interest, so that way our kids can say, “You know, gee, I saw something confusing or disturbing on there. Can we talk about it?” And that’s what we want to have happen.

McCarty Carino: Now there is kind of a long history of concern over how kids are being affected by whatever the latest technology is. For years, I mean all kinds of, you know, negative things have been attributed to TV or video games, sometimes in ways the research doesn’t always totally bear out. Do you think social media has been a unique development in the lives of young people?

Prinstein: Yeah, it’s an interesting question that a lot of scientists have been asking among ourselves as well. You know, are we shouting at “the TV is the devil box”? And, you know, “It’s gonna ruin society.” And you know, and maybe we’re being, you know, a little bit overdramatic about it. But I think some of the things that we’re noticing that do make social media different is the fundamental way that it changes social interactions because of the quantitative nature, because of the visible and permanent nature of the social interactions. And because it’s taking kids away from their, their social interactions in person. You know, our brains, our bodies are remarkably responsive to social interactions. Our DNA turns on and off based on what social interaction we had 10 minutes ago. I mean, for 60,000 years, that’s the way that things have worked. But now all of a sudden, for the first time, we’ve outsourced our social decision-making to a computer. You know, it picks who we should meet, in what order we should see their posts by attaching a lot of likes to those posts, which sometimes they’re not humans that are liking those posts. It influences what we like. We now have data to say that when we see posts with a lot of likes, it changes how our brain processes the information. So we’ve kind of taken the first step, in a way, toward letting machines control our social lives, at least a little bit. And that’s something we should just take a moment and pause — are we controlling social media or is social media having an undue influence on us?

Prinstein also noted that there are, of course, limits to what people can do at an individual level to mitigate some of these risks.

My Marketplace colleague Stephanie Hughes reported last week that schools are feeling pressure to police social media use.

But the surgeon general has also called for action from policymakers and tech companies. In recent months, members of Congress have introduced several bipartisan bills to regulate social media for kids.

But many states are moving ahead on their own. Utah adopted a law that imposes age-verification requirements, overnight curfews and greater parental control of social media apps for minors.

California has created an Age Appropriate Design Code that will require apps to default to stricter privacy and safety settings. Eight other states are pursuing social media regulations of their own.

Of course, developing best practices depends in part on evidence from research, which can be difficult to do since social media companies tend to be secretive with their data.

That could be changing in Europe at least. New provisions of the Digital Services Act require large social media platforms to share their data with independent researchers.

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