Helping kids use social media intentionally and safely is key, says Stanford scholar
In response to the U.S. surgeon general’s advisory about social media’s impacts on youth and adolescents, Stanford scholar Jeff Hancock reflects on what parents, policymakers, and educators can do to help children create healthy habits online.
When it comes to fully understanding the effects of social media on children and teens, content, connection, and intention matter, said Stanford communications scholar Jeff Hancock in response to the statement the U.S. surgeon general issued about the effects of social media on youth mental health.
It’s not just about how much time kids spend on these platforms, it’s also about what they are engaging with and with whom, said Hancock, who has studied the impacts of social media for nearly two decades.
Here, Hancock shares some of his key takeaways from the surgeon general’s warning and some recommendations that parents, policymakers, and schools can consider. He emphasizes that education about these tools is critical, and it should start early so that by the time youth are using these platforms, they know how to do so safely and with intention.
Hancock also talks about how as a parent of a tween himself, he navigates the pressures of an increasingly online youth culture.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Is there anything that you feel the surgeon general’s warning really nailed, and is there anything you feel was underemphasized or at risk of being misunderstood by the public?
The main thing it nailed was recognizing social media’s benefits and its potential harms. It also did a great job of recognizing that the effect of social media can be different for different kids at different times. For some kids it can be a lifeline, for others, it can be harmful, and for many it’s more important how much sleep and exercise they get. It also emphasized that this isn’t just about parents and kids. Policymakers are crucial and education is going to be important.
One thing it misses is how we think of social media as one monolithic thing and it is not. There are a variety of platforms that are all different in important ways, with very different functions, very different kinds of content, and very different kinds of connections. Even within a platform, there are different activities that people can engage with.
Another was the failure to move beyond simply thinking about time spent on these platforms. What are people consuming and with whom? If they are doing things with friends that are supportive and positive, that can be really great. But if they are engaging in behaviors that are making them feel bad about themselves or engaging in hateful misbehavior, that is going to obviously be problematic. The warning falls short of making the stronger move we need toward understanding what users are doing and engaging with rather than just how much time they’re spending on a site.
In addition to being a scholar of social media behavior, you’re also a parent. Do you implement any limits or restrictions on social media in your house?
My own daughter is 12 so she’s not allowed on social media, but she loves watching short videos like TikTok which my wife and I let her watch on the weekends. She gets an hour to an hour and a half on Saturday and Sunday to watch them – much like the time I watched cartoons as a kid. We have her using timers and she’s been really good about doing that.
My daughter and I also have been able to have a fair amount of conversation about the content she’s watching, and this has been really useful. I express things I find problematic, especially at her age, like content that focuses on beauty. She’s gotten really good at knowing what my wife and I wouldn’t like and we talk to her about that. The idea is that we are helping her build skills and competencies around social media so that when she starts actually using it she can have control and agency over her own engagement with these technologies.
The report also notes that the burden of mitigating the risk of harm should not be shouldered by children and their parents. What are some of the first things you think would be helpful to be implemented, either by the social media companies or through policy?
One recommendation is recognizing that not all teenage users are the same. Right now, the platforms require users to be 13 years old or older. But a 13-year-old is very different from a 19-year-old. Thinking about them as the same is problematic. We need new guidelines, new research, and new controls that are more age sensitive and age appropriate.
Education is another crucial area to think about. We need to get serious about educating children on how to stay healthy on platforms they will use later in their adulthood and spend time in a classroom talking about how these things operate and how to use them safely and effectively.
Community and school culture also play a role. If my kids’ friends and parents don’t hold the same view as me, then that makes it really difficult for me to work with my child if everybody else has a smartphone at age 13. Guidelines should be shared and common, perhaps at the school district level recognizing that different communities may have different needs and preferences. There should be more resources made available to parents to help guide conversations they can have with their kids.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
The biggest complaint we hear from people – young and old – is the lack of agency they feel around social media and how much control they have over it. How can we restore that through policy, education, and platforms to give us more control over our own interfaces or data? We want to give people their agency back. Part of this too is asking yourself how you want to use social media in a way that is good for you. What do you want to accomplish when you use social media? Very often it’s just to distract yourself or to be entertained, and that’s okay. When we are more intentional about our usage, we tend to have better mental health outcomes.
If people are more intentional and deliberate about it – setting a goal and timers can be really useful here – that would help with taking time away from other healthy activities known to affect our well-being, like sleep, diet, exercise, family, and friendship connection. I think we have to sort of rethink our relationship with the endless social media stream and be more intentional about what it is we want to do on these sites.
Hancock is the Harry and Norman Chandler Professor of Communication in the School of Humanities and Sciences and is the founding director of the Stanford Social Media Lab and co-director of Stanford Cyber Policy Center.