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Psychologists' group issues recommendations for teens' social media use

The report comes as teens grapple with serious mental health concerns.

WASHINGTON — The American Psychological Association issued Tuesday its first ever set of recommendations for guiding adolescents' use of social media, like limiting screen time if it interferes with sleep and teaching them digital literacy.

The report comes as teens grapple with serious mental health concerns — a recent CDC report, for example, found 60% of teen girls reported feelings of persistent sadness or hopelessness — and parents worry about how their children are using social media.

The 10 recommendations were chosen by a panel of psychologists who reviewed recent scientific findings. Many are steps families and teachers can take, while others target policymakers and tech industry members.

"One of the things we understand is that a holistic solution will require people in all of these different domains coming together," said APA president Dr. Thema Bryant. "So the weight is not just on one. But if we all do our part, then that can help keep our children safe."

The APA recommends adults discuss and monitor the social media use of young teens and tweens, with freedom increasing gradually with kids' age and digital literacy skills. It also recommends screening for signs of "problematic social media use," and adults should minimize adolescents' exposure to dangerous content like disordered eating, self-harm, and hate speech. 

"Sometimes we say, 'Well, I don't want to raise these difficult topics, because it'll make my child think about it.' But the truth is, it's already in your child's awareness," Bryant said. "And us not talking about it sends them a signal that it's unacceptable, or that we're not comfortable. So to begin the dialogue … you have planted the seed, letting them know that you're open to the conversation."

Bryant said social media isn't inherently harmful for young people, who can learn and connect with others online. She said training in digital literacy — another of the recommendations — helps kids navigate the web while avoiding harmful content and misinformation. Screen time limits can also keep social media use from interfering with daily life.

"When we have children all night on the phone scrolling, it affects their physical health, it can affect their academics," Bryant said.

As for tech companies, the APA said social media functions should be tailored to the youngest users — features like recommended content, unrestricted time limits and endless scrolling "may not be appropriate for children. It also calls for reporting structures that easily identify and remove harmful content.

The advisory comes as efforts to regulate young people's use of social media gather momentum on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers have introduced a slew of bipartisan bills focused on children's safety, mental health and data privacy in online spaces. 

READ MORE: Congress eyes new rules for tech: What's under consideration

Still, legislation seeking to regulate the massive tech industry faces major challenges — the bipartisan interest may not be enough to move bills through the Democratic-majority Senate and the Republican-controlled House. The tech industry is also averse to federal oversight, with industry groups criticizing child safety bills as overreaching.

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