Teens, social media, and depression: American Psychological Association issues health advisory

By Brian Ward

The American Psychological Association (APA) has issued a health advisory on the use of social media in children and teens, warning about its impact on mental illness and health. While the May 2 report notes that “using social media is not inherently beneficial or harmful to young people,” it recommends actions to help guide a teenager’s use of social media to avoid harm.

Dr. Arthur Evans, CEO of the APA, told NPR that the country is struggling with the impact of social media and the APA report uses the latest knowledge to arm people "with the information that they need to be good parents and to be good policy makers in this area."

While teens can find support and connections online, they can also find things that magnify depression, anxiety, and self-harm. There are plenty of risks to navigate online, even for for adults—cyberbullying, misinformation, impossible standards of beauty and wealth, and toxic or hateful online communities.  

Some of the recommendations in the advisory include:

  • Adult monitoring of youth’s social media use, with more autonomy given over time as the child matures and becomes more digitally literate
  • Training youths in social media literacy—how to use social media in a beneficial and safe way
  • Decreased exposure to media depicting illegal and psychologically maladaptive behaviors—content that encourages youth to do dangerous or harmful things to themselves or others
  • Decreased exposure to “cyberhate”—online bullying, prejudice, and discrimination
  • Limited use of social media for social comparison, particularly around beauty and appearance related content.
  • Not letting social media interfere with sleep or physical activity

The APA advisory follows on the heals of another report from ECRI naming the pediatric mental health crisis as  the number one top patient safety concern for 2023. Between 2016 and the end of 2020, children aged 3 to 17 saw a 29% increase in anxiety and a 27% increase in depression. This increase in extreme anxiety and depression has led to an increase in suicidal ideation, according to CDC data, with more young people age 12 to 25 presenting to the emergency department (ED) for suspected suicide attempts.

This issue has even made its way to Congress, with a bipartisan bill to ban kids under 13 from social media was introduced to the senate. And there are other bills and ideas being floated to make social media safer for young people.

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