Opinion Social media is devastating teens’ mental health. Here’s what parents can do.

Teenager sending message from phone in bed (iStock)

If we are serious about addressing the alarming worsening of teens’ mental health, we must reduce their social media use.

The connection is well-established. Abundant research has linked depression and self-harm to frequency of social media use. And a new study from the American Psychological Association shows that cutting back helps teens feel better. Companies are aware of this; Facebook executive-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed that the company’s own research found that use of their platforms was linked to anxiety, depression and body image issues in teens.

Federal health data highlight why this is so crucial. In 2021, 42 percent of high school students reported feeling so sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks that they stopped doing their usual activities. The crisis is particularly pronounced in girls; nearly 3 in 5 teen girls reported persistent feelings of sadness, an increase of over 60 percent since 2011.

Indeed, social media is creating a “perfect storm” for girls, Jelena Kecmanovic, a psychotherapist and adjunct psychology professor at Georgetown University, told me. “Their tendency to be perfectionist and hard on themselves during their tween and teen years gets magnified thousands of times in the online culture of comparison,” she said.

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The trouble with online interactions is also what they are replacing. A 2022 survey found that average daily screen use increased further during the pandemic and is now more than 5½ hours among children ages 8 to 12 and a whopping 8 hours and 39 minutes for teens ages 13 to 18. That’s time that previously was spent engaging in-person relationships and on healthier activities such as playing outside, sports and sleep.

Pediatrician Michael Rich, who co-founded and directs the Clinic for Interactive Media and Internet Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital, explained to me that he treats teens who “struggle with physical, mental and social health issues” from excessive social media use. He has seen straight-A students’ grades plummet and young adults struggle to forge relationships after entering college.

Given the magnitude of the problem, solving it might seem daunting for parents. Nevertheless, here are four steps they can take:


Create spaces free from screens.

Kecmanovic suggests establishing guardrails, such as taking away screens during meals and before bedtime. Parents can also limit their kids’ social media use to the shared family space, “not behind locked doors, and definitely not until 2 a.m. in their bedroom” when they should be sleeping.

Given the ubiquity of technology and its use in school curriculums, it might be hard to enforce a screen time limit. Instead, Rich advises setting a minimum time without screens. “That becomes a more practical way to offer our kids a rich and diverse menu of experiences, which can include screens but shouldn’t be dominated by them or become the default behavior,” he said.


Talk to kids and make a plan with them.

Kids might already be aware of social media’s negative impacts on them. Kecmanovic’s patients tell her they know Instagram makes them feel bad about their bodies and TikTok keeps them from getting sleep. Starting from where they are is key to finding a solution together.

Because prevention is the best medicine, it’s best to begin planning before kids get a device or social media account. Rich counsels parents to set boundaries, monitor usage and explain the consequences of missteps. It’s no different from setting ground rules when teens are learning to drive. “We should parent in the digital space like we parent in the physical space,” he said.


Help teens approach technology mindfully.

Both experts told me there are positive uses of digital technology when it’s used for a specific purpose, such as school research or connecting with friends.

Parents can guide kids to ask themselves every five to 10 minutes whether they are doing what they set out to do or mindlessly scrolling. And they should model this behavior themselves. “Parents should be humble and say that this is tough for all of us,” Kecmanovic said.


Delay social media use.

Most social media sites currently impose a minimum age of 13. When I spoke with U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, he was blunt saying this needs to change: “My belief is that 13 is too early,” he told me.

Kecmanovic thinks kids shouldn’t use social media until at least high school. She advises parents to form “pods” with the families of their kids’ friends. Not unlike pandemic pods, these groups can decide together to delay access to smartphones and social media.

At the end of the day, it’s not right that parents are left to fight this battle on their own against companies whose business model is to keep people online for as long as possible. Other commonly used products, from crib mattresses to sippy cups, have to pass safety assessments. We need similar regulation of technologies that dominate children’s time and have negative consequences on their health.