Ask any educator and they’ll cite one of the main causes of the current behavioral health crisis in K12 schools: social media. Less obvious is what superintendents, principals and teachers can do about it as they grapple with what most agree is an unprecedented level of mental distress among young people.
That may be because the medical community also doesn’t have a full grasp on just how social media affects the health of students, researchers contend in a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
“Research shows social media has the potential to both harm and benefit adolescent health,” the report says. “For example, algorithms that generate content recommendations can provide young people with important health information or expose them to unscientific treatments.”
The “direction” of the relationship between social media and adolescent health is also murky because social media may influence health but health may also influence how young people use social media. “There is also much to be learned about how specific platform features—such as “likes” or the endless scroll format of some platforms—may affect adolescent health,” the report posits. For these reasons … a more judicious approach is warranted rather than a broad-stroke ban, and does not make recommendations for specific limitations on teens’ access to social media.”
What is clear is that attractive design can keep kids attached to their phones even when they want to disengage. Compounding the risk is that adolescents, compared to adults, have a harder time regulating emotions, are more sensitive to rewards and are meant to seek out independence and explore new identities, the National Academies adds.
Social media health solutions
District leaders should continue to emphasize media literacy and provide teachers with adequate professional development in the subject one superintendent recently told District Administration was among the most important schools could teach. The report also encouraged district educators to advocate for states to set media literacy curriculum standards, particularly in digital media to make students more sophisticated and discerning users of social media.
Educators should counsel students to use social media for social support and to avoid content that depicts illegal or risky behavior, such as self-harm, harm to others, hate speech and eating disorders. Adolescents should also be routinely screened for signs of “problematic social media use” that interferes with their ability to engage in schoolwork and other daily routines.
Educators can also encourage parents and caregivers to set guardrails by creating a family media use plan that:
- Addresses what type of and how much media is used and what media behaviors are appropriate for each child and for parents.
- Places limits on the hours per day each media platform is used.
- Promotes children and adolescents getting at least one hour of physical activity each day and at least eight hours of sleep.
- Prohibits children from sleeping with devices, including TVs, computers and smartphones.
- Designates media-free family times (such as dinner) and media-free locations (such as bedrooms).
- Ensures parents view media with children so the latter learn to use platforms creatively and collaboratively.
- Use media to learn and be creative, and share these experiences with your family and your
Parents should also form a network of trusted adults—such as aunts, uncles, grandparents and coaches—who can interact productively with children on social media and help them when they encounter challenges or suspicious behavior.
Outside of schools, the report called upon the International Organization for Standardization, a tech industry watchdog, to set standards for social media platform design, transparency and data use. Social media companies themselves should develop more robust systems for reporting and rooting out online harassment of minors, from cyberbullying to sexual exploitation.