When it comes to the potential risks or benefits of social media for children, we should not look at social media as a whole but instead focus on specific features and behaviors that are built into social platforms and to which children are particularly vulnerable, according to the chief science officer of the American Psychological Association.

More research is needed to better understand how certain features and content inherent in social media, as well as user behavior, may be affecting our children for both good and bad, APA Chief Science Officer Mitch Prinstein, PhD, told the Senate Judiciary Committee (PDF, 355KB).

And the age at which children begin to use social media is an area of great concern, he said.

“Developmental neuroscientists have revealed that there are two highly critical periods for adaptive neural development,” Prinstein said in written testimony. “One of these is the first year of life. The second begins at the outset of puberty and lasts until early adulthood (i.e., from approximately 10 to 25 years old). This latter period is highly relevant, as this is when a great number of youths are offered relatively unfettered access to devices and unrestricted or unsupervised use of social media and other online platforms.”

At puberty, he said, children begin to crave social rewards, such as visibility, attention and positive feedback from peers. “In contrast, [brain] regions involved in our ability to inhibit our behavior, and resist temptations (i.e., the prefrontal cortex) do not fully develop until early adulthood (i.e., approximately 10–15 years later),” he said. “In other words, when it comes to youths’ cravings for social attention, they are ‘all gas pedal with no brakes.’”

Prinstein explained that an implication of these findings is that children may not have the ability to restrain themselves from using social media too much. Recent research shows over 50% of teens reporting at least one symptom of clinical dependency on social media.

He also outlined several additional areas of concern that have emerged from scientific research. Social media sites ostensibly exist to foster social connections, he said. But many youth use the sites to compare themselves to others, seeking “likes” and other metrics rather than healthy, successful relationships.

“In other words, social media offers the ‘empty calories of social interaction’ that appear to help satiate our biological and psychological needs, but do not contain any of the healthy ingredients necessary to reap benefits,” he said.

Social media also heightens the risk for negative peer influence among adolescents, as well as for addictive social media use and stress, he added, citing research showing that many young people use social media more than they intend to and that they have difficulty stopping its use.

“Youths’ biological vulnerability to technology and social media, and their resulting frequent use of these platforms, also has the potential to alter youths’ neural development, since our brains develop in response to the environment we live in,” he said. “Recent studies have revealed that technology and social media use is associated with changes in structural brain development (i.e., changing the size and physical characteristics of the brain).”

Prinstein also pointed to the risks associated with young people accessing social media sites that glamorize disordered eating, cutting and other harmful behaviors.

“Moreover, in some cases this content is not removed nor are trigger warnings included to protect vulnerable youth from the effects that exposure to this content can have on their own behavior,” he said. “This underscores the need for platforms to deploy tools to filter content, display warnings, and create reporting structures to mitigate these harms.”

Another area of concern is what young people are missing out on by spending so many hours on social media—especially sleep, which they need for healthy development.

“Research suggests that insufficient sleep is associated with poor school performance, difficulties with attention, stress regulation, and increased risk for automobile accidents,” he said. “Neuroscientific research has demonstrated that inconsistent sleep schedules are associated with changes in structural brain development in adolescent years. In other words, youths’ preoccupation with technology and social media may deleteriously affect the size of their brains.”

But it is not all bad news. Some research demonstrates that social media use is linked with positive outcomes that can benefit youth mental health, according to Prinstein.

“Perhaps most notably, psychological research suggests that young people form and maintain friendships online. These relationships often afford opportunities to interact with a more diverse peer group than offline, and the relationships are close and meaningful and provide important support to youth in times of stress,” he said. This can be especially important for youth with marginalized identities, including racial, ethnic, sexual and gender minorities.

Prinstein made several recommendations for what Congress can do to address many of the risks social media may pose to youth. These include:

  • Allocating at least $100 million to study social media and adolescent mental health;
  • Mandating that data from algorithms be made public, along with other internal research conducted by social media companies;
  • Requiring social media platforms to develop tools to mitigate the harm to youth, such as disabling particularly addictive features and enabling users to opt out of certain algorithms;
  • Mandating protections for marginalized and LGBTQ+ kids, while retaining their ability to connect with others in such groups for social support;
  • Passing the Kids Online Safety Act and previously proposed legislative fixes such as updates to the Children Online Privacy and Protection Act.

“Your actions now can make all the difference in how our young people interact with, and are impacted by online spaces,” Prinstein told the committee. “Together, psychology, other scientific disciplines, parents, caregivers, teachers, tech companies, and policymakers can work to solve this serious problem.”

American Psychological Association. (2023, February 14). APA chief scientist outlines potential harms, benefits of social media for kids [Press release]. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2023/02/harms-benefits-social-media-kids