ADHD News & Research

APA Issues First-Ever Guidelines for Teen Social Media Use

Recommendations from the American Psychological Association include teaching teens media literacy, monitoring and limiting usage, and attempting to minimize exposure to harmful content.

May 12, 2023

Teens should be routinely screened for signs of “problematic social media use.”

Adults should provide ongoing monitoring, discussion, and coaching around social media content, particularly for younger teens.

Parents should minimize exposure to “cyberhate” and content that “depicts illegal or psychologically maladaptive behavior,” including content that encourages teen self-harm, harm to others, or eating-disordered behavior.

Teens should limit use of social media for social comparison, especially around appearance-related content.

These are four of the ten recommendations released earlier this week by the American Psychological Association (APA) in its first-ever guidelines on social media use for teens, parents, teachers, and policymakers intended to keep adolescents safer online.

[Self-Test: Could My Child Be Addicted to Social Media?]

Recent data about worsening mental health among teens, especially teen girls, has made many experts and parents concerned about the role social media may be playing in this crisis. In their health advisory, the APA drew upon the significant body of scientific evidence to date in order to offer a broad set of guidelines which include limiting and monitoring social media use, ensuring social media does not interfere with teens’ sleep and physical activity, and teaching media literacy.

“Just as we require young people to be trained in order to get a driver’s license,” said APA President Thema Bryant, Ph.D., in a press release. “Our youth need instruction in the safe and healthy use of social media.”

Minimizing teens’ exposure to problematic content may prove challenging, as this content is pervasive across social media platforms. According to a recent survey, more than a third of teen girls reported seeing harmful content related to eating disorders on TikTok and Instagram at least monthly. One in five teen girls of color reported that they encounter racist content on social media on a daily basis. LGBTQ+ teens were found to be roughly twice as likely as non-LGBTQ+ teens to encounter hate speech related to sexual or gender identity.

While the APA’s recommendations are largely geared toward parents, there is information in the report that could be used by policymakers to regulate the industry, such as the insight that features created for adults — such as the “like” button, recommended content, and endless scrolling — may not be appropriate for children.

[Read: Teens Facing a Different Kind of Social Disease]

Social Media and Teens with ADHD: Particular Risks

In a press release, Bryant explained that the risks and benefits of social media depend, in large part, on the way these media are used. “Social media is neither inherently harmful nor beneficial to our youth.” Bryant said. “But because young people mature at different rates, some are more vulnerable than others to the content and features on many social media platforms.”

Teens with ADHD may be “more vulnerable” to the harmful effects of social media than their peers. According to a recent ADDitude survey on social media use, 72 percent of kids aged 10 and older who have ADHD use social media, and 35 percent of those experience negative mental health effects, including anxiety, sadness, sleep problems, and depression. The incidence of these negative consequences are about 70 percent higher than they are among teens who don’t use social media.

Among girls with ADHD, the picture is even more bleak. In the ADDitude survey, half of girls’ caregivers reported adverse mental health effects from social media use by their kids, with 21 percent reportedly experiencing eating issues and nearly 18 percent engaging in self-harm.

In a recent ADDitude webinar titled Compare and Despair: Social Media & Mental Health Concerns in Teens with ADHD, Sharon Saline, Ph.D., spoke about the ways in which social media use is  “particularly precarious for teens with ADHD, who begin adolescence with a legacy of feeling different and misunderstood.” As Saline explained, “It’s precisely these teens who are likely to make unhelpful and unhealthy social comparisons, especially on social media.” The APA’s advisory agrees that these comparisons can be damaging to teen’s mental health.

The ADDitude survey also revealed that bullying on social media may be especially prevalent among teen girls with ADHD: 58 percent of caregivers reported their daughters were bullied on social media and 44 percent were bullied in text messages. “My daughter was bullied online, her account was hacked, and explicit photos of my daughter were shared online,” recounted the mother of a 15-year-old in Canada. “My daughter went from a happy, healthy, successful singer, dancer, and actor to withdrawing from everything.”

The immediacy of social media, in which a post or message can be composed and shared widely in seconds, poses special risks for teenagers with ADHD, who struggle with inhibitory control. “As apps have evolved, the time lag from thought to post has shortened,” said Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., in a social media guide for teens, created for ADDitude. “For teens with ADHD, social media is where impulsive thinking can lead to impulsive action.”

Given these dangers, parents may be tempted to ban social media use for teens with ADHD, but this prohibition tends to be highly ineffective. “We instead encourage parents to begin a social media ethical-use dialogue with their children,” Crenshaw said. “For kids with ADHD, that dialogue must be a regular occurrence, because there will be learning-drift.”  Even with open and continuous dialogue, chances are that teens, especially those with ADHD, will make mistakes.

Social Media and Teens with ADHD: Particular Benefits

While the APA’s health advisory warned of possible risks associated with social media, it made clear that these apps also carried potential benefits. “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,” wrote the authors of the report. “Youth with symptoms of mental illness, such as adolescents with social anxiety, depression, or loneliness, for instance, may benefit from interactions on social media.”

Sasha Hamdani, M.D., a psychiatrist and ADHD specialist who uses her sizable TikTok following to provide accurate information about ADHD, says social media is “bringing mental health out of the shadows.” Many credit social media with helping to de-stigmatize ADHD and its many co-morbidities, and celebrate the potential for users to share stories and information, as well as build community.

“I was initially reluctant to engage in this platform,” said Hamdani in a recent article for ADDitude. “Now, I recognize the value in providing research-backed, data-driven information in a palatable, engaging manner. A big reason why I continue to contribute on TikTok is the vocal, supportive, and endlessly empowering ADHD TikTok community.”

Get Help

Suicide &Crisis Lifeline: Call or Text 988

National Sexual Assault Helpline: 1-800-656-HOPE

National Substance Abuse Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP

Stop Bullying

Dangers of Social Media for Teens: Next Steps

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