from the parents-need-to-parent,-news-at-11 dept
What if the media and the politicians threw a moral panic about kids and social media… and the actual experts didn’t come along? The American Psychological Association has put out a thoughtful, nuanced study, about kids and social media, that suggests that the hyperventilating we’ve heard about is misplaced, and that there are some simple common sense approaches that parents can and should take to make sure their kids are having a healthy experience with social media.
But it seems that the media is so bought into the moral panic narrative, that they’re completely misrepresenting the study, claiming it supports the moral panic.
The core findings, similar to what we’ve been saying all along, and which is supported by multiple other studies, is that social media is not inherently bad for kids. For the vast majority, it’s neutral or positive. There is a small percentage who seem to have issues with it, and we should focus our attention on dealing with those cases, rather than pushing for things like outright bans. From the findings of the APA report:
Using social media is not inherently beneficial or harmful to young people. Adolescents’ lives online both reflect and impact their offline lives. In most cases, the effects of social media are dependent on adolescents’ own personal and psychological characteristics and social circumstances—intersecting with the specific content, features, or functions that are afforded within many social media platforms. In other words, the effects of social media likely depend on what teens can do and see online, teens’ preexisting strengths or vulnerabilities, and the contexts in which they grow up.
Adolescents’ experiences online are affected by both 1) how they shape their own social media experiences (e.g., they choose whom to like and follow); and 2) both visible and unknown features built into social media platforms.
Not all findings apply equally to all youth. Scientific findings offer one piece of information that can be used along with knowledge of specific youths’ strengths, weaknesses, and context to make decisions that are tailored for each teen, family, and community.
Of course, If you’ve been paying attention lately, we’ve been talking a lot about the ongoing moral panic regarding kids and social media. We’re hearing over and over again that social media is dangerous for all kids. Full stop. We’ve pointed out repeatedly that the data and research on the issues do not support literally any of the claims that politicians (and the media) are making about the impact of social media on kids.
But neither the media nor politicians seem to much care about the facts here. Claiming that social media is bad for kids and “something must be done” appeases voters who have been sold this line of bullshit. And, of course, if you scratch the surface a little, it’s not difficult to find the legacy entertainment industry pulling strings behind the scenes. After all, they’ve always hated the internet, and they own the major TV news providers as well, so it’s somehow easy for them to present nonsense as fact and have everyone buy it.
For example, around the same time this report came out, saying that social media is not inherently harmful to kids, I received a press release from a group, announcing a new “PSA” from famed Hollywood actress Laura Linney which really plays up the nonsense claims, stating that within 15 seconds of a child getting on social media, the services are trying to deliberately feed that child dangerous information.
“Within 15 seconds of logging on to social media, the algorithm has your daughter in its crosshairs.
“It sends her a steady flow of messages telling her she isn’t thin enough, pretty enough. They invade her brain, causing body dysmorphia, anxiety, depression – leading to the worst rates of eating disorders, self harm and suicide we have ever known. All while she is sitting right next to you, on her phone.
“Congress knows but it refuses to act. Don’t let her suffer the secret pain alone. Use your voice. Demand a plan.”
This bit of pure manipulative disinformation comes from a Hollywood group, the “Entertainment Industry Foundation” and a moral panic outrage operation called The Center for Countering Digital Hate, which seems to believe that flat out lying to people is a reasonable approach to attacking social media.
But, again, none of this is new. The Pew study we talked about in the fall, found that the vast, vast, vast majority of teenagers either found social media beneficial or neutral. Only a small percentage found it harmful. Lots of people like to (misleadingly) cite the documents that Frances Haugen leaked to the Wall Street Journal, but as we’ve detailed over and over and over again, what the main study found was that in 23 out of 24 categories they studied, a large majority of teens felt better or neutral about themselves, and there was only one single area (teen girls regarding body image) where just slightly more girls felt worse about themselves than better (and it was still just in the range of 1 out of 3. And, the whole reason this slide existed with this headline was because Meta found that single bad result to be a problem and so they were talking about how to deal with it.
None of this presents a world in which these companies don’t care, or are deliberately “invading her brain” with negative messages about herself.
And, on top of that, all of these moral panics seem to assume the only answer is to ban kids completely or block all discussions of certain types of speech even though we have years and years of detailed studies showing that that does not work. At all. COPPA is supposed to keep kids under 13 from using internet services, but parents recognize that many of those services are useful for their kids, so they teach their kids to lie in order to use them.
And for complex topics, like eating disorders, multiple studies have also shown that banning those topics actually made things worse. The kids still found a way to talk about those things, but in ways that were more difficult for adults to monitor, and where it was more difficult for people to go into those conversations and provide help to those who needed it to help them try to deal with their eating disorders.
In other words, the moral panic is not only wrong, it’s dangerous.
The APA’s recommendations are careful, thoughtful, and nuanced. They suggest kids (with the help of their parents) learn to use social media in a productive, healthy manner.
Youth using social media should be encouraged to use functions that create opportunities for social support, online companionship, and emotional intimacy that can promote healthy socialization
Data suggest that youths’ psychological development may benefit from this type of online social interaction, particularly during periods of social isolation, when experiencing stress, when seeking connection to peers with similar developmental and/or health conditions, and perhaps especially for youth who experience adversity or isolation in offline environments.
The APA specifically notes that social media may be particularly helpful to marginalized teenagers or those facing mental health challenges:
Social media may be psychologically beneficial particularly among those experiencing mental health crises, or members of marginalized groups that have been disproportionately harmed in online contexts. For instance, access to peers that allows LGBTQIA+ and questioning adolescents to provide support to and share accurate health information with one another is beneficial to psychological development, and can protect youth from negative psychological outcomes when experiencing stress. This may be especially important for topics that adolescents feel reluctant to or are unable to discuss with a parent or caregiver.
They also suggest that when kids are younger, it’s appropriate for parents to help kids with social media, to teach them how to use it appropriately and safely, but as they get older, it’s important to let them discover things for themselves:
In early adolescence (i.e., typically 10–14 years), adult monitoring (i.e., ongoing review, discussion, and coaching around social media content) is advised for most youths’ social media use; autonomy may increase gradually as kids age and if they gain digital literacy skills. However, monitoring should be balanced with youths’ appropriate needs for privacy.
Brain regions associated with a desire for attention, feedback, and reinforcement from peers become increasingly sensitive beginning in early adolescence, and regions associated with mature self-control are not fully developed until adulthood. Parental monitoring (i.e., coaching and discussion) and developmentally appropriate limit-setting thus is critical, especially in early adolescence.
Adults’ own use of social media in youths’ presence should also be carefully considered. Science demonstrates that adults’ (e.g., caregivers’) orientation and attitudes toward social media (e.g., using during interactions with their children, being distracted from in-person interactions by social media use) may affect adolescents’ own use of social media.
Preliminary research suggests that a combination of 1) social media limits and boundaries, and 2) adult–child discussion and coaching around social media use, leads to the best outcomes for youth.
The report does suggest helping kids avoid content that advocates for harmful or illegal behavior, and recommends that social media sites prioritize de-prioritizing such content but the report also recommends that the best way to handle much of this is to train children to learn how to recognize problematic content such as online racism and how to properly deal with it:
Adolescents should be trained to recognize online structural racism and critique racist messages. Research shows that young people who are able to critique racism experience less psychological distress when they witness race-related traumatic events online. As noted above, adults’ monitoring and active discussion of online content can also reduce the effects of exposure to cyberhate on adolescents’ psychological adjustment.
There are a few other recommendations in there, but on the whole, the report repeats what we’ve been saying all along. Most kids get value out of online services, and the best way to handle things is to better educate them and prepare them for what they may see online. Teach them how to deal with the real world, don’t hide it from them and then dump it all at them when they hit a certain birthday.
So, given this thoughtful balanced approach that goes against the media narrative, how do you think the media covered this report? NPR Morning Edition did a whole segment focusing the attention on the exact opposite of what the report actually said: “Major psychologists’ group warns of social media’s potential harm to kids” blares the title.
Honestly, I don’t see how you could read this report and have that be your takeaway, because most of the report is literally saying the opposite. Michaeleen Doucleff’s full report is even worse, because it flat out pats itself on the back for claiming it predicted there was “mounting evidence” of harm caused to kids… which against IS NOT WHAT THE REPORT SAYS.
And, as NPR has reported, there’s mounting evidence that social media can exacerbate and even cause these problems.
It’s like Doucleff decided what she wanted the report to say and just pretended it said that. Hilariously, there’s really only one paragraph saying that the report has 10 recommendations, and notes that the recommendations are “primarily for parents” and then IMMEDIATELY quotes some random therapist who disagrees with the report to say it’s wrong.
NPR is usually pretty good about reporting things, but this is just laughably bad.
Thankfully, much of the other reporting on this report is more accurate, with the focus being on the APA’s recommendations to better train kids in how to use social media appropriately. But still, the report has received almost no coverage at all from the mainstream media outside of NPR, and certainly none that I can see from Hollywood-owned news properties which have been promoting the FUD about social media and kids for over a year now.
Of course, none of this will stop politicians from pushing forward their bills that go exactly against the recommendations here. And we’ll still continue to hear people insist that it’s “proven” that social media is damaging and making kids kill themselves or get eating disorders. The reality is a lot more nuanced and complex, and it would be nice if some of the institutions we’re supposed to trust — media and politicians — actually paid attention to the data.
Filed Under: digital literacy, health, kids, moral panic, parenting, social media, teenagers