The Wall Street Journal revealed last week that researchers at Instagram had studied for years how its photo-sharing app affects young users and found that it can be particularly harmful to teenage girls, news that alarmed parents and lawmakers.
According to the research, which was not publicly released, Instagram makes body image issues worse for one in three teenage girls. And among teenagers who reported suicidal thoughts, “13 percent of British users and 6 percent of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram,” the Journal reported.
Facebook, which owns Instagram, issued a statement in response, saying in part that “research into the impact social media has on people is still relatively nascent and evolving” and that “no single study is going to be conclusive.” Instagram noted in a statement that social media can have a “see-saw” effect, where the same person might have a negative experience one day and a positive one the next.
For some parents, the study’s findings weren’t necessarily surprising given the platform’s preponderance of unattainable, altered images, but it raised an important question: What can we do to help our kids have a healthier relationship with social media?
Several experts offered advice for parents of adolescents on navigating social media, whether their children are already online or on the cusp of receiving their first phone or tablet.
Don’t go from ‘zero to 100.’
Rather than gifting your kid a smartphone and letting them download multiple social media apps, consider letting your child text with a best friend or a cousin on a shared family device to start, suggested Devorah Heitner, the author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World.”
Then think about the most appropriate age for your child to start using social media, taking into account their personality, impulsivity and maturity level. Allow them to add one social app when they’re ready, Dr. Heitner said, rather than going “from zero to 100.”
If your daughter has body image issues, for example, maybe an app like Instagram isn’t right for her, said Jean M. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of “iGen,” a book about teens and young adults and their relationship with technology.
Your kid may want to use an app like Snapchat because all their friends are on it, even though the company’s rules say they’re too young. And if that happens, you can reach out to other parents to see if there’s an alternative way for the kids to communicate that allows you to stay true to your own values, Dr. Heitner said.
Dr. Twenge, a mother of three, has this blanket rule: “Children 12 and under should not be on social media,” she said. “The answer is no, and the law is behind you.”
The law she is referring to is called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which prohibits companies from collecting data online from children under 13 — and as a result, social media platforms say children under 13 cannot create their own account. But kids 12 and under can easily evade any age-related restrictions on social media platforms by lying about their birth year, said Linda Charmaraman, the director of the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab at Wellesley College.
In 2019, over 90 percent of the 773 middle schoolers surveyed during the first wave of a longitudinal study conducted by Dr. Charmaraman’s lab reported that they had their own smartphone. Nearly three-quarters of those kids had already started using Instagram or Snapchat, and more than 40 percent were 10 or younger when they first joined.
Facebook, which is developing an Instagram app for children under 13, says the new app would keep children off its main platform while addressing safety and privacy concerns. But lawmakers, state prosecutors and children’s and consumer groups are deeply concerned.
Set time limits.
It’s not as though once a child reaches the age of 13 they are suddenly ready to handle all of the issues that can accompany a social media account. After all, some adults still struggle with it.
Think about the least invasive ways to set time limits and establish social media etiquette rather than constantly monitoring your child’s online interactions, and aim to come across as supportive and helpful, rather than someone who will be perceived as anxious, shocked or punitive, Dr. Heitner suggested.
When you decide that your kids are ready to have their own device, don’t give them 24-7 access to it, the experts said.
Remove phones, tablets or other electronic devices from your child’s bedroom at night. And if your teenager uses their phone as an alarm clock, buy an alarm clock that is not connected to the internet, Dr. Twenge said.
Choose one platform and one time period, she added. You could say, for example, that your child can use Instagram for 30 minutes a day. You can set that limit via your phone — on Apple look for the Family Sharing settings and on Android you can use an app called Family Link. When the time limit is up, the app on your child’s phone will no longer be accessible. To prevent unwanted downloads, there is also an Ask to Buy setting on Apple phones that will send a request to the parent when kids want to buy or download a new item.
If you have a kid who is tech savvy and might try to override settings like this, you may need to physically remove their device after the time limit, Dr. Heitner said.
You can also consider getting your child a Gabb phone, which does not allow for web or app browsing, or Pinwheel, a smartphone with multiple built-in parental controls, including the ability to monitor your child’s communications.
A 2019 report from Common Sense Media found that most tweens and teenagers with a phone or tablet do not use apps or tools to track their device time, however the experts said this is something everyone, including parents, can benefit from.
If you prefer not to monitor social media use electronically, you can simply ask your child to hand over their phone while they focus on homework or another activity, Dr. Twenge said.
It’s important for kids (and adults) to understand that the more we pay attention to our phones the less we’re investing energy in the rest of our lives and, as a result, “the rest of our lives actually become less interesting,” said Anna Lembke, the chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic at Stanford University and the author of “Dopamine Nation.”
At the dinner table and elsewhere family members need to “collectively all turn our attention to each other,” she said. “We have to do that in order to preserve those connections.” Be honest about your own struggles curbing media usage. Take digital breaks when needed and encourage your kids to log off too.
“Social media platforms are designed to be addictive,” Dr. Twenge said. “It’s not just an individual problem, it’s a group problem.”
Help your teen understand and curate their feed.
A study published in 2016 found that fewer than half of the parents surveyed regularly discussed social media content with their tween and teenage children.
But the experts said it’s helpful to talk to your teenager about who they are following, and how these accounts make them feel.
Dr. Heitner warned that teenagers should be especially cautious of any dieting or exercise sites because they could “clog up your feed” and potentially encourage unhealthy thoughts or behavior. Algorithms will serve content related to who your kids follow, what they search for and how they browse online.
Laura Tierney, the founder and chief executive of The Social Institute, an organization that teaches students across the country how to navigate social media in positive ways, advises teenagers to dig into their social media settings to find out why certain ads pop up in their feeds.
Start by visiting the Instagram app’s settings, then choose “security,” and then “access data.” Under “ads interests” you can view the specific things that Instagram thinks you like, based on your personal data. In Ms. Tierney’s experience, “most students have no idea this even exists.”
She also suggested helping your child find true role models. “This is about surrounding yourself with positive influences,” she said. They could be peers, or celebrities like gymnast Simone Biles. If your child’s feed has accounts that are chipping away at their self esteem, those are the ones that your child needs to quickly unfollow, Ms. Tierney said.
“As a parent, your job is to listen and ask open-ended questions,” she added. To start, you can ask what your child’s top five accounts are versus their bottom five accounts — and share your own as well — and talk about why you ranked them this way.
“You want to be around accounts that help you become the best version of yourself,” she said.