Protecting Teen Girls from the Harmful Effects of Social Media

Protecting Teen Girls from the Harmful Effects of Social Media

Much has been in the news recently about the mental health crisis among teens and young adults. Stories like “The kids aren't alright: The post-pandemic teen mental health crisis” (NPR), “Pandemic youth mental health toll unprecedented, data show” (Associated Press), and “The pandemic took a harsh toll on teen girls’ mental health, CDC says” (Los Angeles Times) are documenting what parents, teachers, and counselors are seeing firsthand. 

Now, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has identified social media—whose use is nearly universal among teens—as one area to place blame. Last week he issued a warning that social media poses a threat to kids' mental health, and he has called on policymakers, platforms and parents to create safer limits. In an interview with Axios, Murthy said, "What kids are experiencing today on social media is unlike anything prior generations have had to contend with." He added, "People have compared themselves for millennia, but never to this degree, with the sheer overwhelming volume of content that's coming at our kids 24-7."

A recent survey of teens showed that, on average, they spend 3.5 hours a day on social media, which is particularly concerning because research has shown that those who spend more than 3 hours a day face double the risk of poor mental health including experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety.

According to the surgeon’s advisory, children and adolescents on social media are commonly exposed to extreme, inappropriate, and harmful content, including: 

  • Content perpetuating body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviors, social comparison, and low self-esteem, especially among adolescent girls

  • Hate-based content

  • Suicide- and self-harm-related content 

Social media use can clearly be excessive and problematic for some:  

  • On a typical weekday, nearly one-in-three adolescents report using screens (most commonly social media) until midnight or later.

  • Studies have shown a relationship between excessive social media use and poor sleep quality, reduced sleep duration, sleep difficulties, and depression among youth.

  • One-third or more of girls aged 11-15 say  they feel “addicted” to certain social media platforms and over half of teenagers report that it would be hard to give up social media.

While the surgeon general’s advisory recommends immediate actions that can be taken by policymakers, technology companies, and researchers, much of the burden falls on parents and children themselves.

Parents and caregivers can make plans in their households such as:

  • Establishing tech-free zones that help protect sleep and foster in-person relationships

  • Teaching responsible online behavior, such as avoiding cyberbullying, protecting personal information, and maintaining a positive digital footprint

  • Teaching how to critically evaluate online content, identify misinformation, understand privacy settings, and recognize the potential consequences of their actions online

  • Modeling positive online behavior, and reporting problematic content and activity

  • Helping teens cultivate well being and build emotional resilience by emphasizing the importance of self-care and self-acceptance

  • Encouraging them to curate their social media feed to include positive and uplifting content, follow role models who promote body positivity and mental health awareness, and foster genuine connections with friends rather than seeking validation through likes and followers

  • Maintaining open lines of communication and creating a safe space/non-judgemental environment where teens can openly discuss their online experiences, concerns, or instances of cyberbullying

Children and adolescents can adopt healthy practices like:

  • Limiting time on platforms

  • Blocking unwanted content

  • Being careful about sharing personal information

  • Reaching out if they or a friend need help or see harassment or abuse on the platforms

Developing digital literacy is essential, and this year, Merion Mercy Academy introduced #WinAtSocial, a curriculum developed by The Social Institute to equip students to navigate the complex intersection of well-being, social media, and technology. Through a positive, student-centered approach, this gamified, online learning platform promotes character, empathy, and teamwork to fuel students’ health, happiness, and future success. Their work has been applauded by Melinda Gates and featured by Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. 

Topics addressed by #WinAtSocial include managing stress, balancing between technology and the people around us, and using our actions and voices, both online and offline, to support each other and be a force for good. Specific lessons included mastering public speaking and storytelling in the age of social media, using social media to tackle the biggest challenges facing our generation, considering how the brands we support impact the world, and activating and empowering the next generation of leaders. 

While social media offers numerous benefits, it is essential to acknowledge and manage the potential dangers it presents to teenagers. We must help teens navigate the hazards of social media and create a safer and more positive online experience. Together, let's empower teenagers to make informed decisions, build healthy relationships, and flourish in the digital landscape—their very lives may depend on it.