Teens messaging on mobile phones Social media can be your child’s window into the world, letting them see how others experience joy as well as letting some into their own life. But unlike the window in your home, blocking out unwanted content isn’t as simple as drawing the blinds — and that’s not something parents should turn a blind eye to.

Desmond Upton Patton, PhD, MSW, is a social worker in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the director of the SAFELab research lab at University of Pennsylvania and a Brian and Randi Schwartz University professor at UPenn. In response to the Surgeon General’s recent warning about the harms of social media for youth and adolescents, he offers parents his insights, critical perspectives and potential strategies gathered from his research on social media and how online communities can influence offline behavior.

It’s not perfect

Rather than paint a pretty picture of the world, platforms like Tik Tok, Facebook, Instagram, Roblox and online gaming, in general, reflect our physical society and everything in it: unattainable body image, sexism, racism, discrimination and bullying, according to Dr. Patton. This content can easily bypass moderation to trigger psychological stress and negatively impact mental health, contributing to feelings of isolation, anxiety and depression. Meanwhile, echo chambers can promote bias, misinformation and racism, further spreading harmful content.

“We must also be concerned about invasive advertisements, particularly those exploiting insecurities around body image and societal norms, which can have detrimental impact on identity development and self-esteem,” he adds.

Parents and caregivers can help address all these issues by promoting digital literacy and resilience at home. If we are to accept social media as the “new neighborhood” and part of the extended community, it will require educating kids about the potential harm that comes along with it. It is essential families acknowledge and actively work against the ways in which racism and additional forms of “othering” are woven into digital platforms.

It’s not all bad

“Despite the numerous challenges we face with keeping youth safe online,” Dr. Patton believes there is a bright side. “Social media offers young people a space for deep connection, self-expression, creativity and learning.”

Rather than part of the problem, youth should be considered part of the solution. Together, your family can collectively develop and promote healthy and thriving social media use. Strategies may include the following:

  • Foster open communication: Create go-to questions for your teens and tweens, such as asking if they have encountered any suspicious ads or misleading content on their social media accounts.
  • Identify positive role models: Talk to your children about who they follow and how those accounts make them feel. These could include content creators on platforms like YouTube or TikTok, who share exciting experiences like makeup tutorials, college applications or self-care tips.
  • Partner with your child’s pediatrician: Make discussing social media a routine part of visits with your child's pediatrician. Share any behavioral shifts or concerns related to online features, like live streaming, comments sections or direct messaging. Be sure to discuss both the positive and negative emotional experiences your child may encounter online.

It takes work

Dr. Patton concludes: “At Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), our commitment to the health and well-being of our patients and community requires us to address the emerging digital challenges they face.”

CHOP and Dr. Patton are actively engaged in research to further understand the impact of social media on youth mental health. By understanding how harm occurs on social media — and how that harm can make its way into your home — families can join the Surgeon General in taking proactive steps to ensure your kids navigate these digital spaces safely and confidently.

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