APA chief scientist outlines potential harms and benefits of social media for children

Washington – When discussing 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 characteristics and behaviors built into social platforms that suggest that children are particularly vulnerable to the Chief Science Officer of the American Psychological Association.

More research is needed to better understand how certain social media features, content, and user behavior can affect 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 start using social media is an area of ​​major concern, he said.

“Developmental neuroscientists have shown that there are two extremely critical periods for adaptive neural development,” Prinstein said in a written statement. “One of them is the first year of life. The second begins at the onset of puberty and lasts until early adulthood (ie, from about 10 to 25 years of age). The latter period is of great importance as a large number of young people are offered relatively unrestricted access to devices and unlimited or unsupervised use of social media and other online platforms.”

During puberty, he said, children begin to crave social rewards like visibility, attention, and positive feedback from their peers. “In contrast, [brain] Regions involved in our ability to inhibit behavior and resist temptation (ie, the prefrontal cortex) do not fully develop until early adulthood (ie, about 10–15 years later),” he said. “In other words, when it comes to young people’s desire for social attention, they’re ‘all accelerator without brakes.'”

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Prinstein explained that one implication of these findings is that children may not be able to restrain themselves from overusing social media. Recent research shows that over 50% of teens report at least one symptom of clinical addiction to social media.

He also outlined several additional problem areas that have emerged from scientific research. Social media sites ostensibly exist to encourage social connections, he said. But many teens use the Sites to compare themselves to others, looking for likes and other metrics rather than healthy, successful relationships.

“In other words, social media provides the ’empty calories of social interaction’ that appear to help meet our biological and psychological needs, but lack the healthy ingredients necessary to reap benefits,” he said.

Social media also increases the risk of negative peer influence among adolescents, as well as addictive social media use and stress, he added, citing research showing many young people use social media more than they intended and that they find it difficult to stop using .

“Adolescents’ biological vulnerability to technology and social media, and resulting frequent use of these platforms, also has the potential to alter adolescent neural development as our brains evolve in response to the environment we live in,” said he. “Recent studies have shown that use of technology and social media is associated with changes in structural brain development (i.e., changing the size and physical properties of the brain).”

Prinstein also pointed out the risks associated with young people accessing social media sites that glorify disorderly eating, cutting and other harmful behaviors.

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“Moreover, in some instances, this content is not removed nor is trigger warnings included to protect vulnerable youth from the impact that exposure to this content may have on their own behavior,” he said. “This underscores the need for platforms to employ tools to filter content, display alerts, and create reporting structures to mitigate this damage.”

Another area of ​​concern is what young people are missing out on when they spend so many hours on social media – specifically sleep, which they need for healthy development.

“Research suggests that insufficient sleep is associated with poor academic performance, attention deficit disorder, stress regulation and an increased risk of car accidents,” he said. “Neuroscientific research has shown that inconsistent sleep schedules are associated with changes in structural brain development during adolescence. In other words, teens’ exposure to technology and social media can be detrimental to the size of their brains.”

But it’s not all bad news. Some research shows that social media use is associated with positive outcomes, which Pristein says can benefit adolescent mental health.

“Perhaps most notably, psychological research suggests that young people make and maintain friendships online. These relationships often provide an opportunity to interact with a more diverse group of peers than offline, and the relationships are close and meaningful, providing vital support to youth during times of stress,” he said. This can be particularly important for youth with marginalized identities, including racial, ethnic, sexual and gender minorities.

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

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Allocating at least $100 million to research into social media and adolescent mental health; Requiring that data from algorithms be made public, along with other internal investigations conducted by social media companies; Calling on social media platforms to develop tools to mitigate harm to youth, e.g. B. disabling particularly addictive features and allowing users to opt-out of certain algorithms; Requiring protections for marginalized and LGBTQ+ children while maintaining their ability to connect with others in such social support groups; 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 influenced by online spaces,” Prinstein told the committee. “Together, psychology, other scientific disciplines, parents, caregivers, teachers, tech companies, and policymakers can all work to solve this serious problem.”