MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL (05/11/2023) — Social media has become a major part in the lives of children and teenagers and its possible impact on mental health is a growing area of conversation. Earlier this week, the American Psychological Association issued recommendations for guiding teenager's use of social media for the first time.

For Mental Health Awareness Month in May, Kathryn Cullen, MD, with the U of M Medical School discusses the impact of social media on children's mental health as well as advice for parents. 

Q: What are some of the ways that social media impacts children’s mental health?           

Dr. Cullen: First, it’s important to note that this is still an emerging field, and so we still have a lot to learn. Social media is a phenomenon that impacts people of all ages, but concern has been raised about the potential risks for teens. During this developmental phase, peer relationships are of utmost importance. So, teens may be especially sensitive to the acceptance and rejection that goes on with social media. This is an active area of research. So far, studies have shown both positive and negative effects for media use on mental health outcomes for children and teens. 

Social media gives teens the opportunity to learn new things, express themselves creatively, share humor, and receive support from peers. The latter is especially important for young people from marginalized backgrounds who may not be able to find the support they need in their own ‘real world’ community. One key potential risk is bullying—social media allows kids to be bullied when they are at home, not just at school. Additionally, through social media platforms, kids can be exposed to false information and harmful content, and potentially manipulated into unsafe situations. Overuse of social media can interfere with learning and other important activities that are critical to mental health such as sleep, exercise, being outside, having real in person contact with others and general engagement with the real world.

Q: What amount of screen time is considered unhealthy for kids?                                                          

Dr. Cullen: There is no hard and fast number that should be applied as a screen time limit to all kids. The appropriate amount of screen time will be different for each family. When setting limits, it’s important to be both realistic and consistent. In this process, a high priority should be making sure kids get enough sleep and exercise, which are critical for so many aspects of health and development. Some specific recommendations include turning off screens during family meals, and removing them from bedrooms 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime. While homework will often require some kind of internet access, other kinds of entertainment media use while doing homework is discouraged. 

Q: Are there specific platforms or social media features that pose particular harm/risks to children?                                                    

Dr. Cullen: Social media platforms and features are always changing, so much so that making a formal recommendation about the risks and benefits of one versus the other is very difficult. By the time we feel we have a firm grasp on a specific platform/feature, it has already changed. The important thing is that parents have an understanding of how their child is engaging in social media and that they can have meaningful conversations with their child about the child’s experiences, to provide support and guidance.

Q: What advice would you give parents who may be concerned about their children's social media usage?

Dr. Cullen: I encourage parents to talk to their kids about their social media use. They may find that their kids themselves are also concerned and feeling confused about what to do. Approaching these conversations with curiosity and non-judgment can open doors that allow parents to learn more about what kids are learning and experiencing, which can help them in guiding their kids. Having regular discussions about online citizenship and safety is a good thing and these conversations don’t need to be one-way. When it comes to these topics, kids need guidance from their parents. There’s a lot parents can learn from kids, too.

Q: What work are you doing to advance research on adolescent mental health? 

Dr. Cullen: My research generally aims to try to understand the brain mechanisms underlying depression and suicide risk in teens and use that information to guide the development of new treatments. Lately, my research team has been analyzing the data from the ABCD study, which is a longitudinal brain imaging study of over 10,000 kids who were 9-10 years old when they started the study and will be followed for 10 years. Because this study is collecting data starting before the prevalence of depression goes up in the adolescent period, it provides a unique opportunity to study developmental trajectories associated with the onset and course of depression in teens. Another direction of my research lately has focused on creativity. We are looking into the potential value of engaging in the creative arts as a way to improve mental health in teens.

Dr. Kathryn Cullen is an associate professor and the head of the child and adolescent mental health division at the University of Minnesota Medical School, as well as a psychiatrist at M Health Fairview. Dr. Cullen leads an NIH-funded research team examining the neurodevelopmental underpinnings of depression, self-injury and suicide risk in adolescents and young adults and investigating interventions aimed at promoting healthy trajectories in these youth.


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