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Teens say social media is stressing them out. Here's how to help them

Many teens and young adults struggle with overuse of screens. They also have good advice for how to have a healthy relationship with social media.
Rose Wong for NPR
Many teens and young adults struggle with overuse of screens. They also have good advice for how to have a healthy relationship with social media.

"What advice would you give to young people who are new to social media?"

"Have you ever felt like you need to change your social media use...?"

Teens and young adults from across the country answered these questions in a text survey in 2020. Their answers are eye-opening.

"I would tell young people ... the internet is far off from reality and the more time you spend on it, the more you forget what real life is actually like...," one person wrote.

"Don't let social media control your life or your self-esteem," another texted.

The study, published in September, reveals a striking awareness about the potential harms social media can have on teenagers' mental health, but also their persistent attempts to counter these harms.

Some respondents explicitly said social media made them feel depressed. Many asked their parents to help them stop using it. Nearly two-thirds of respondents gave some version of this advice to future teens: Don't use social media. It's OK to abstain. Or delete your accounts.

"I have repeatedly deleted Instagram in an effort to improve my emotional state but then, I reinstall. Many times," a respondent wrote.

About 95% of U.S. teens today use some type of social media, and about a third say they use it "almost constantly," the Pew Research Center found in August. At the same time, teens and tweens are facing a mental health crisis. And research indicates that these two trends are intertwined: that social media can cause depression and lower life satisfaction.

While clinicians and psychologists try to come up with remedies to this crisis, some of them are realizing something paradoxical: Teens and young adults may be the best source of advice and solutions. They are the experts of these apps — not their parents.

And they've been affected by social media more than any other generation, says Emma Lembke, who's 20 and founded the Log Off Movement to help teens have a healthy relationship with social media. "We, Gen Z, have felt so tangibly the impact of being left alone to big tech's profit business model," she explains. "And that relationship is completely asymmetric, and it is just harming young people."

By listening to young people, Lembke believes, parents can work with teens to help them minimize the harms of these platforms while maximizing their benefits.

"I do believe social media has great aspects as well," says Rijul Arora, age 26, a digital wellness coach and consultant who leads a project called LookUp India, aimed at helping teens unhook from social media. "I've been given a lot of opportunities because of social media. I can amplify positive content, and I'm connecting with a lot of people worldwide."

If you're a young adult struggling to keep up with school because you can't put down your phone, Arora and Lembke don't advise trying to cut off from social media altogether. Instead, they say find the sweet spot, "where you take the positive but leave the negative."

The goal is to give youth more agency over social media apps, Arora says. "So teens are using these apps instead of the apps using teens."

And parents, this all applies to you too: Here's how to support and nudge your teen toward balanced screen use, while changing your own habits.

Step 1: Learn what you're up against

/ Rose Wong for NPR
Rose Wong for NPR

Here's what teens and young adults say over and over again: Know what you are up against with social media.

Back when Lembke was in sixth grade, she really, really, really wanted a phone.

"I remember as each one of my friends got a phone, each one of them was getting pulled away from conversations with me, from even playing on the playground," Lembke explains. "So my initial response to this phenomenon was 'OK, there must be something so magical and amazing within these social media apps."

Then she got her own phone, she says, "And I remember for the first few months I was in love with Instagram."

"One day, I think I commented, [to] Olive Garden, 'I love you.' And they responded, 'We love you, too.'" Lembke says. "And I was screaming around the house. It felt like the best day ever."

But within a few months, her time on her phone had increased from one hour to five or six hours each day. And her relationship with her phone shifted.

"I realized that the magic I thought Instagram — and all these social media apps — had was really just an illusion," she says. "As I began to scroll more, I felt my mental, and physical health really suffer."

Lembke wishes someone would have told her about this possibility before she began using social media.

"I have an anxiety disorder, and I have OCD," Lembke told Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., in March 2022, during a roundtable hosted by the nonprofit Accountable Tech. "I was never warned that entering these online platforms would only amplify the things that I already struggle with."

Meta's global head of safety, Antigone Davis, said in a statement emailed to NPR that the company refers to research on social media and feedback from teens and families. The company has launched "more than 30 tools to support families," she says, including some "that allow teens and parents to navigate social media safely together."

A representative from TikTok noted in an email that the company released a tool in March for users to monitor their screen time.

So here's what Lembke and other young people want you to know about how the apps work:

1. These apps aren't necessarily going to improve your life. They aren't necessarily going to help your fear of missing out. In fact, some teens say their feelings of FOMO actually worsened after starting social media. And for teenagers who are already struggling with mental health problems, studies suggestthat social media can exacerbate these issues.

2. The goal is to keep you on the phone, even if you don't want to stay. Even if you feel like social media is hurting you. The apps are designed to keep you using them so you can see ads. That's how social media companies make money, Meta's Mark Zuckerberg explained to Congress in 2018.

Social media apps tap into an ancient pathway in your brain that makes you crave using them and makes it extremely difficult to stop, says neuroscientist Anne-Noël Samaha at the University of Montreal. "Social media apps know very well how to exploit human behavior to keep you coming back."

Many teens say they feel like social media apps control them instead of vice versa. "I felt this addiction. I felt this pull, as if I had lost agency...," Lembke said to Sen. Blumenthal. "As a young female, as a young person, that's incredibly scary."

But here's the third thing teens say, over and over again about social media overuse: You can break the habit. And it starts with one key step: a digital audit.

Step 2: Get your baseline

/ Rose Wong for NPR
Rose Wong for NPR

Because of the way social media taps into our brain circuitry, most of the time we hardly realize we're using the apps. It's habitual or even subconscious. That's why young people suggest doing a digital audit to help bring this usage into your consciousness.

For a project in high school English class, Sofie Keppler tracked the time she spent on each app on her phone each day for a week. The results triggered several big epiphanies for the 16-year-old: "First, that I was using my phone like a lot — I mean a lot — more than I thought," she says.

Second, "it made me think like, maybe I should limit myself ... so I'm not always on social media, and I'm talking to everyone around me," she says. "The more I was on the phone, the more I was ignoring people in social settings."

Ironically, you can do a digital audit easily with an app, such as Apple Screen Time, Moment, Toggl Track and Rescue Time.

"Facts don't lie ... [tracking my usage] really got my eyes to open up," Lembke says on the Log Off podcast. "When I downloaded Moment and I saw I had like 200 pickups of my phone each day, I was horrified. People don't understand those statistics ... until they really, really see them."

Then once you understand your baseline, have self-compassion, says Rijul Arora, who has struggled with what he describes as an addiction to social media himself. Don't feel ashamed or anxious about it.

In workshops he gives on managing social media use, he tells teens: "Even if you have very high screen time ... first acknowledge that you're doing that, and it's OK to be that way," he says. Then when a teen seems ready to change, he adds: "It's not OK to stay that way."

Which brings us to the next step.

Step 3: Add "friction" to make yourself pause

/ Rose Wong for NPR
Rose Wong for NPR

Just as friction on the road slows down your car, friction on social media slows your usage. Basically, it's adding apps that throw up small obstacles when using social media. Friction makes you pause for a bit and think before you mindlessly log on, scroll or click.

Some "friction" even makes you take breaths, fill out a wellness survey or meditate after some amount of time engaged with social media.

Adding friction is surprisingly easy. Again, there are a bunch of apps. Lembke recommends HabitLab from Stanford University. The app uses more than 20 interventions to reduce your time on whatever apps you choose. For example, HabitLab runs a clock at the top of the screen showing how much time you've spent on the app. It also blocks your news feeds and even stops your scroll after a certain amount of time.

For some apps, it uses an intervention called "Feed Diet," which hides recommended content. Or it uses the "Mission Goal" intervention, which makes you type in why you're entering this site.

Other friction apps include Moment, Freedom, Forest and Screentime Genie. Both Instagramand TikTok also have tools inside the apps to add friction.

Do these friction apps work? "Oh, I think my screen time decreased by like 80%" while using HabitLab, Lembke says.

If you're tired of apps, Lembke recommends something she created: the five-minute power scroll. While looking at your news feed, stop at each image for five minutes. Say to yourself, "OK, with this image and with this person, why am I following them? Does this image make me happy? Am I benefiting from their content?" And if not, "unfollow them and give yourself grace to do that," Lembke says.

This five-minute power scroll helps you reflect on why you're using the app and what you want to prioritize during your time online, she says. "It's how can I maximize its benefits for me, while mitigating its harms."

Step 4: Hack your apps' default settings

/ Rose Wong for NPR
Rose Wong for NPR

On many apps, Arora says, the default settings tickle his brain circuitry in a way that amplifies his cravings and habitual overuse.

"Never go by the default settings that tech companies give you," says Arora. "Kids love this tip! Because they hate to be manipulated."

Over and over again, teens say that turning off notifications is the first — perhaps the most critical — step here. You can do it for only certain times of day, if you need.

But also explore all the setting options, Arora says, including those related to privacy, your feed, comments and likes. "For example, many people don't realize that you can turn off 'likes' on Instagram," he says. "This helps reduce the competitiveness of the app."

And if an app recommends videos or other content, or starts the next video on auto-play, don't click. Go and find the video you want to look at, Lembke says. Remember, she says, you're in charge. Not the app.

Both Instagram and TikTokhave information for parents on how to set up teens' accounts in a way that makes them safer but also can help with overuse.

For example, TikTok has started setting all users under age 18 to a screen time limit of 60 minutes each day. When they reach that limit, the app prompts them to enter a passcode if they want to keep watching, "requiring them to make an active decision to extend that time," the company explained in March.

And in Instagram, teens can turn on notifications that urge them to "take a break" after a certain amount of scrolling. The app will also "suggest that they set reminders to take more breaks in the future," Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, notedin December 2021.

Step 5: Enrich your 3D life

/ Rose Wong for NPR
Rose Wong for NPR

This one is huge. And it comes from Alassane Sow, 20, who's studying environmental microbiology at Michigan State University. He and many other young people notice that they use social media when they're bored (or stressed and need a distraction).

"A lot of people have a sort of shame when they see that they have 10 hours of screen time a day, and they don't like that," Sow explains. "But they don't have anything else to do — or they feel like they don't."

Sow saw this in himself. "At some point, I realized that I couldn't sit down for five minutes in my own space without looking at my phone for some sort of stimulus. That's when I noticed, like, something was off," he says.

So he went out and started to find other hobbies that don't use his phone. He even has a special name for this: long-format entertainment. These are activities that take time to complete, such as reading a book, or drawing a picture.

"These activities make sure my brain isn't only entertained by short videos and stuff like that," he explains.

"I consciously plan to do them — instead of being on my phone, I say to myself, 'I'm going to read a chapter of this book today or I'm going to go see my friends — that's my favorite thing to do."

Psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists agree wholeheartedly with Sow. Reinvigorating your life offline is critical to healthy social media usage. Then cutting down social media becomes much easier. You don't have to accept boredom offline.

"I'm a big believer in passion in your life," explains therapist Bob Keane at Walden Behavioral Care. "What do you really like to learn? What gets you really excited besides your phone? And that's, I think, what we really have to encourage kids to develop."

Not sure where to get started finding a passion? Lembke's Log Off project has a whole series of projects and challenges to try, from dipping your toe into the 3D world to taking on big, long-term projects.

Step 6: Reach out to your parents for help — or if you're a parent, get involved

/ Rose Wong for NPR
Rose Wong for NPR

This isn't ironic or a joke. Teenagers say over and over again that they want their parents to help them regulate their social media use.

They don't want parents to rip the phone away or be controlling or bossy. And they definitely don't want to feel judged or shamed for their social media use. But they want parents to listen empathetically, offer gentle advice and set up guard rails. Even some rules. They want help learning to manage their device themselves.

"In order to prevent addiction and manage digital wellbeing, it is important for parents to set boundaries for their children/teenagers," writes recent high school graduate Keegan Lee in a blog post on Log Off, called "A Message from Gen Z to Parents." Lee describes how to talk to teens about their usage and gives some ideas for how to set up rules, including "Try to keep tech out of the bedroom."

"Children may not like this suggestion," she continues, "however, explain to them the purpose of the bedroom is used to rest and recharge."

Also, Lee suggests setting clear consequences and punishments when kids violate tech rules. And "revisit the rules frequently," she writes. If parents don't help kids manage their screen use, she explains, no one else will.

Keane at Walden Behavioral Care says teenagers in his support group told him the same idea. "The kids were pretty clear to us that they need help," he says. "They need help figuring out ways to be able to manage this because they told us, clearly, 'We can't do it by ourselves.' "

And the rules need to apply to the whole family, including the parents themselves. "For example, if you have a family dinner, no one has a device at the table," Keane suggests. "If a parent is driving your adolescent to a game or a practice ... the parent can say, 'If you're going to want me to drive you, you're not on your phone, you're talking to me.' "

The goal is simple but critical: Get kids back in the habit of socializing face-to-face. Because unlike online interactions, talking to other humans in person "is the glue of genuine human connection," says therapist Kameron Mendes, who works with Keane at Walden Behavioral Center. And it's time to replenish that glue.

"Adolescence is when kids start to become their own people in the world," Mendes adds. "They try on finding friends, connecting with other people and connecting with other types of values and ideas. For that process to take hold and flourish, we really need to restore some level of human connection."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michaeleen Doucleff
Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.