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The challenges teens face on social media seem inescapable. Here’s how to moderate their use

By Madeline Holcombe, CNN

(CNN) — Teens on social media is a problem many parents and guardians have lost sleep over, but for which few feel there are real, practical solutions.

Don’t worry, there are, experts say.

While there are some benefits, social media presents a “profound risk of harm” for children and adolescents, and more needs to be done by policymakers and technology companies, according to an advisory this week from the US Surgeon General.

“We’re in the middle of a youth mental health crisis, and I’m concerned that social media is contributing to the harm that kids are experiencing,” Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy previously told CNN Newsroom.

The current research on social media cannot say exactly what all the impacts are on kids and teens, but researchers are trying to better understand what the impact on development is, said Dr. Eva Telzer, an assistant professor of developmental psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“We cannot wait for action to be taken,” said Telzer in a joint statement with her colleague, Mitch Prinstein, to CNN. “We are looking to policy-makers and tech companies to help ensure teens can benefit from the best parts of social media, yet be protected from its risks.”

Prinstein is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, co-director with Telzer at the Winston National Center on Technology, Brain and Psychological Development, and the American Psychological Association’s chief science officer.

Murthy isn’t the only one sounding the alarm on adolescent social media use. Earlier this month, the APA put out guidance recommending that teens be trained in social media before using it.

In moderation, Telzer and Prinstein said they believe social media use could be innocuous or even helpful for teens to establish connections and gain information.

“But this means that teens need to be taught first how to avoid the traps set by algorithms and understand the differences between helpful info vs. mis or disinformation,” Telzer and Prinstein said in an email.

What unhealthy social media use looks like

When looking at adolescent and teen social media use, see if it’s limiting them from engaging in other healthy behaviors, said Dr. Lisa Damour, a psychologist based in Ohio and author of “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers: Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents.”

Many teens report that they feel stressed related to the constant need to be connected, and they feel unable to disconnect, Telzer and Prinstein said.

Social media use should not interfere with getting good sleep, doing schoolwork, engaging face to face with friends, or being helpful around the house or in the community, Damour said.

Also critical to healthy social media use is the kind of content teens are exposed to – in other words, know which “side of TikTok” your child is on, she said.

The positive side could have cute puppies, funny videos and cool life hacks. But the negative side could promote discrimination, misogyny, racism, bullying or eating disorder behavior, Damour said.

Starting the conversation

Practicing safety needs to be done with teens — not to them, Damour said. And they may be more receptive than you might think with the right information.

“It’s critically important that we help tweens and teens understand that social media platforms have a single aim, which is to harness their attention in the interest of making money,” she said earlier in May. “We have excellent research showing that when teens are alerted to how they’re being manipulated by adults, they become more resistant.”

Social media companies make their money by capturing attention for advertisements, said Tristan Harris, the co-founder and president of the Center for Humane Technology, who appeared on the documentary “The Social Dilemma.”

The best way to do that is to keep users addicted, polarized, outraged, distracted, misinformed and narcissistic, Harris said.

Damour encourages adults to be genuinely curious and ask questions of their teens when it comes to how they are using social media and how it makes them feel.

“Teens can detect when social media is making them feel worse rather than better, and they are aware of many of the negative experiences that occur on social media,” Telzer and Prinstein said.

In the conversations, adults should make clear that they are for safety – not against social media, Damour said.

“Some parents villainize all social media by claiming it offers zero value in a young person’s life, when it’s clear that there are many upsides to learning how to use social media tools creatively, appropriately and responsibly,” said Michelle Icard, parenting educator and author of “Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen: The Essential Conversations You Need to Have With Your Kids Before They Start High School.”

“At the same time, without proper mentoring and guidance, of course it can be harmful,” she previously told CNN.

Although you may not be able to control what happens when teens are on social media outside your own home, it is important to clearly communicate what your family’s values are when it comes to content, Damour said.

“At a minimum we want them to be thinking about the fact that what they are engaging in or looking at is not in line with the family’s values,” she said.

Social media safeguards

But the safety measures don’t have to stop at conversation.

Introduce it slowly.  When it comes to introducing social media, it is OK to go slowly and at the pace of your individual child, Damour said.

To start out, you can get a device for your child that just calls and texts, which for many should be enough for them to engage with their peers without the social media risks.

Families can then move to a smartphone if their child handles texting well, she said. There are settings to disable browsers and have adults moderate which applications a child can download on their smartphone.

Where and when social media is used. Adults can moderate how frequently and in what ways social media is being used by limiting where in the home kids use their electronics. For example, Damour recommends phones and computers don’t go in the bedroom, at the dinner table or where teens are doing homework — except for devices used for studying.

Families should also store devices outside their bedrooms (adults included).

The LED light from our phones, computers, tablets and gaming can suppress melatonin levels, which can impact sleep, said Dr. Vsevolod Polotsky, who directs sleep research in the division of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

The number one rule is to keep away from those devices at least one hour before bedtime, Polotsky said in a previous CNN story.

Ask questions. Ask your kids to share their online interests with you, suggests parent Erin Hahn, including any silly videos and music that might not be music to your ears. You’ll learn their interests and be able to spot warning signs if you already know some of what they see.

It’s OK to pull back. The key is to know and keep conversations open with your individual child, Damour said. The technology is often designed to keep us going, even when we want to stop, so don’t be afraid to pull back if your child is having a hard time, she said.

And when it comes to knowing what kind of content the algorithms are doling out to your child, if you think they will be honest, ask your teen, Damour said.

“If you don’t have confidence that your teenager will be honest about where they are spending time online, I think that’s a really good time to reconsider whether your teenager is mature enough to enjoy access to social media, she added.

Don’t be a hypocrite. Are you always on your device, checking in on the latest family updates on Facebook and watching silly videos on Instagram while your kid is trying to get your attention? You may also have a social media problem. Make sure you are aware of your own social media use, even as you monitor your family’s use.

Try a social media break. It’s OK for the whole family to take a social media break for a few days. Note the pull of social media as parents and kids try to live in the “real” world.

“It might be time to find those non-social media apps and digital experiences and rethink how much time you spend on platforms that aren’t leaving you feeling calm, refreshed, and in a better headspace,” said Dr. Neha Chaudhary, chief medical officer of BeMe Health and child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in a previous story.

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