Helping our youth to successfully navigate social media

Social media has become an important part of young people’s lives. Miri Rosen, M.D., Medical Director for Carelon, discusses how providers and parents can help youth learn to use social media to enhance their lives without negatively impacting their mental health.


Youth and the emergence of social media


Social media has become a significant part of youth daily life. Up to 95% of youth aged 13-17 report using a social media platform. Nearly two-thirds of teens report using social media daily, and one-third report using social media on a constant basis. As a result, the U.S. Surgeon General released an advisory recommending that researchers, policymakers, and technology companies work together to support children and their families with the information and tools to help youth navigate the changing social media landscape.

“Social media is now a complicated, important part of a young person’s development,” says Miri Rosen, M.D., Medical Director, NY State Children’s Medicaid Behavioral Health, Carelon. “The social interaction that children, teens, and young adults experience has changed so dramatically. Knowing how to navigate social media effectively is a skill that young people now need to learn. They have to understand how social media will be a pivotal part of their life as they grow older. They need to learn how to balance the benefits and risks of engaging in various social media platforms.”


How social media affects youth mental health


Negative impacts

Excessive social media use in youth has been linked to worsening depression, anxiety, poor body image and low self-esteem, development of eating disorders, and self-harm. “Providers see this negative correlation in young people across all age groups,” says Dr. Rosen. “When kids spend too much time on social media, they may experience poor sleep patterns, which can increase anxiety and depression.”

One of the first steps families should take is to follow the social media platform’s age recommendations. “Kids shouldn’t access social media that is not age appropriate. Parents need to know when it’s the right time to allow their children a social media account, especially when it comes to younger kids. Families need to be aware of the risks of kids sharing information and images with strangers. Kids may also be exposed to harmful or inappropriate content. So, families should follow the platform’s age recommendations.”

Positive impacts


At the same time, youth can benefit from social media use. Social media platforms can offer positive community and connection with others who share identities, abilities, and interests. Youth can access important information in social media spaces and create a place for self-expression.

“For kids who are already struggling with social anxiety disorder, social media can provide a safer way for kids to interact and grow. Social media may also allow isolated youth to create a community and escape stigma related to mental illness. For example, LGBTQ+ youth can find a group on social media. Youth can also access information on mental health,” says Dr. Rosen.


What parents can do to help their kids on social media


Dr. Rosen emphasizes that while youth can access helpful mental health information via social media, they also run the risk of accessing poor or inaccurate information. “The flow of good information can be hard to monitor, so this is where parents can help navigate,” she advises.

The U.S. Surgeon General recommends that parents encourage their kids to continue to develop in-person relationships, empower them to stay current with the latest technology, and be responsible as they use social media.

“Parents can help kids learn to use social media, so it doesn’t negatively impact their mental health. Social media should enhance young people’s in-person social interactions, not take them over or replace them,” says Dr. Rosen.

When she works with families, Dr. Rosen recommends that parents take on the responsibility of learning about social media and the latest platforms. “Following one’s child on social media is not enough. Parents need to learn and understand the various apps. Who are their kids connecting with, and what are the risks? Parents need to help their kids learn that social media can help them find a community, but social media is not a replacement for real life connections. Social media is not a place to get drawn into for an excessive amount of time.”


How providers can help their patients navigate the social media landscape


The American Medical Association encourages primary care physicians to assess pediatric patients and educate parents about balancing screen time, physical activity, social interaction, and sleep. Dr. Rosen agrees. “Primary care providers have an opportunity to connect with their patients by understanding these platforms. They should embrace the fact that teens like interacting in ways that differ from those of previous generations.”

Dr. Rosen believes that providers also have an opportunity to educate their patients on mental health via social media. “Providers can be a positive voice on social media so that young people get the correct information. Providers can use social media as an opportunity to reduce stigma in mental health care by sending the right messages and understanding what a teen’s social life online looks like. Providers need to understand the impact of social media’s 24/7 intense access. Social media has influenced cyber bullying, and body image, all of which plays an important role in eating disorders. Providers need to talk to kids about how they are accessing social media, safe practices, supporting them, and helping them to use the apps safely.”


Youth social media trends on the horizon


“Mental health is trendier than it used to be, so there’s a contagion effect,” says Dr. Rosen. “This is an opportunity for providers to create valuable content as social media users search for diagnoses. More mental health providers are making voices for themselves on social media.”

She emphasizes the emergence of virtual access. “Virtual platforms that engage kids in treatment such as telebehavioral health and texting are evolving. These developments open up more opportunities for education and treatment, and the potential for greater effectiveness.

“Kids need social media. It’s an important part of being a teen right now, so it’s not realistic to take it away from kids. Parents and providers need to be present as the platforms evolve to help kids learn how to best use them,” Dr. Rosen concludes.