Psychologists Give Advice To Parents On How To Manage Teenage Social Media Use

Emerging research can help parents blunt the negative effects of adolescent social media use.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | August 28, 2022

A new study published in the academic journal Current Opinion in Psychology offers a path forward for parents who are searching for better ways to navigate the nascent world of adolescent social media use.

The authors argue that it is possible for parents to put guardrails in place that reduce pre-teen and adolescent anxiety and depression resulting from social media overconsumption, as well as minimize the negative effects of cyberbullying.

Here is an overview of their recommendations.

Recommendation #1: Familiarize yourself with the different styles of social media parenting

It should come as no surprise that parents vary widely in the way they manage their children's social media use. According to the authors, there are four general approaches parents take when monitoring their teenagers' social media use. They are:

  1. Autonomy-supportive. This approach provides a developmentally appropriate rationale for social media rules and takes adolescents' perspectives seriously.
  2. Autonomy-restrictive. This approach provides rules in a strict and harsh way, without much respect for adolescents' perspective.
  3. Inconsistent. This strategy, or lack thereof, occurs when parents randomly vary in their restrictions, regulations, or discussions of social media.
  4. Permissive. This approach avoids guidance and discussion and provides limited restrictions or rules.

There are other styles as well. Some parents practice 'social media surveillance,' in which they keep tabs on adolescents' media use — for example, by using tracking software, holding adolescents' social media passwords, or checking adolescents' social media profiles. Researchers break social media surveillance down into two sub-categories: 'authoritarian surveillance' (e.g., accessing adolescents' social media accounts and passwords) and 'nonintrusive inspection' (e.g., browsing their profiles).

There are also cases of 'co-use,' where parents and children use social media together.

Before attempting to refine your social media parenting style, it is important to reflect upon your current social media stance and how it may be perceived by your child or children. Are you autonomy-supportive or autonomy-restrictive? Are your rules inconsistent or permissive? Do you co-use social media with your child? Do you practice some form of social media surveillance?

Recommendation #2: A stricter approach may be a better approach

While there is no 'right answer' to the question of how to parent in the age of social media, a majority of the data suggests that more active approaches lead to better outcomes than passive approaches.

The authors state, "Overall, studies find that adolescents report less problematic use when parents use more parental monitoring, restrictive or active mediation, or strict internet and smartphone rules."

Evidence also suggests that adolescents spend less time using social media when parents implement an autonomy-supportive approach. Other evidence reveals that teens exhibit more anxiety and depressive symptoms when parents use a more autonomy-restrictive style to restrict adolescents' social media use and fewer symptoms when parents implement an autonomy-supportive style.

In other words, there is something to be said for creating a family environment in which social media dialogue between kids and parents is a supportive, two-way street — but while maintaining strict rules to limit overconsumption and problematic social media activity.

Of course, there are counterarguments to this line of thinking. One study, for instance, found that a more restrictive stance on social media access was associated with a heightened risk of social media addiction. What this should illuminate is that while some approaches on average work better than others, individual circumstances should be taken into account when developing your own social media monitoring strategy.

Recommendation #3: Stay informed. As social media evolves, so will the guidance.

Many big questions remain unanswered. For example, it is still unclear whether the type of social media your child is using (be it online, on a smartphone, for gaming, etc.) influences how you, as a parent, should manage it. It's also unclear how quickly the negative effects of social media overconsumption on a child's well-being can be undone. Can parents expect a rapid turnaround in a child's behavior after shifting course, or do the negative effects linger for some time?

More research is needed to address these important questions.