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Local experts lay out strategies to address youth social media use

A Case Western Reserve University instructor and a local mental health counselor provide advice for families in managing social media use.
Vasin Lee
Mental health experts say there are ways to reduce the risks of social media for teens and children.

The U.S. surgeon general's recent warning of social media's "profound risk" of harm to young people has raised concern among parents. But Northeast Ohio experts say there are ways to mitigate some risks and social media can play a positive role in the lives of some.

Social media use by youth should only be allowed in as much as it helps establish positive social connections, said Lisa Damour, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University.

"What we're looking for is an inflection point," she said. "How little digital technology and social media does your kid have? But is it enough to actually allow them to maintain their connections with the people they spend time with in real life?"

Last month, the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an advisory that said children and adolescents aged 8 to 17 who spend more than three hours online per day double their risk of poor mental health, including experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety. The advisory also found that nearly half of adolescents ages 13 to 17 had a worse body image after being on social media and nearly two-thirds of them are exposed to hate online.

While this data is concerning, parental involvement and the right mindset about social media can make a difference between a good and bad experience online, experts said.

Damour suggested that parents prohibit overuse of social media, especially at bedtime.

Noone should have phones or computers in their bedroom overnight, she said.

"Some of my favorite research has looked at kids getting phones and some taking them in their rooms at night and some not," said Damour. "In some of these studies, it's the kids who have them in their rooms who go on to have the worrisome mental health outcomes."

Parental involvement is important, but so is making sure children to have the right mindset when going online, said Eric King, a Beachwood-based mental health counselor.

"If my client is a child, I'm really having a discussion about their imagery of themselves," he said. "How do you view yourself? How do you view yourself in relation to your friends ... as well as how do you view yourself with the material that you are consuming on social media."

Both Damour and King said there are upsides to social media use.

"We see kids for whom the connections made over social media are literally lifesaving," said Damour. "This can be especially true for kids who may be marginalized socially, either because they're members of a sexual or gender minority or some other group that does not have the kind of support that it deserves in maybe their local community."

King stressed there are also benefits of social media when it comes to social justice.

“You know, George Floyd, without that tool, without social media, we would not have seen what was going on,” he said, "and we also would not have utilized that tool for change."

Stephen Langel is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media's engaged journalism team.