Gallup shows how parenting supervision on social media use impacts youth mental health
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Gallup shows how parenting supervision on social media use impacts youth mental health

Before politicians pass constitutionally dubious laws, they should consider other options to reduce the negative outcomes of teen social media use.

Last month, federal judges blocked the implementation of new child online safety laws from Arkansas, California, and Texas that effectively required age verification to view most websites. In granting these preliminary injunctions, the courts found that opponents are likely to succeed in their claim that the state laws violate the First Amendment. Beyond these legal issues, new data about parenting and online activity may cast some doubt on the core claims that proponents of such online safety laws put forward. 

A main claim of online safety advocates is that social media creates addictive behavior in adolescents and then exposes them to harmful content in various forms, fueling a variety of mental health problems. These claims were popularized in part by famed New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who drew a causal connection between teens’ social media use and negative mental health outcomes. In The Atlantic, Haidt wrote:

One major question, though, is how much proof parents, regulators, and legislators need before intervening to protect vulnerable young people. If Americans do nothing until researchers can show beyond a reasonable doubt that Instagram and its owner, Facebook (which now calls itself Meta), are hurting teen girls, these platforms might never be held accountable and the harm could continue indefinitely. The preponderance of the evidence now available is disturbing enough to warrant action.

However, the statistical relationship between social media use and teen mental health deserves re-examination due to fresh findings on parenting habits.

In a study published in October by Gallup’s principal economist Jonathan Rothwell, parents were asked on a five-point scale how much they restricted screen time. Parents who reported the most stringent screen restrictions had children who spent roughly 3.7 hours per day on social media. Parents who reported no screen restrictions had children who spent more than 5.5 hours on social media daily. Gallup found a correlation between total supervised adolescent time and social media use, meaning children who spend more overall time supervised use social media less. 

Most importantly, researchers cross-examined these results with literature like Haidt is compiling. They found that by controlling for factors such as parental restrictions and self-control, many of the observed relationships between social media and mental health dissipated. Rothwell found:

Children who exhibit greater self-control and/or live with parents who restrict screen time, supervise them, and sustain a strong relationship are far less likely to spend 4 hours or more per day on social media. The negative effects of high social media use on mental health are no longer observed when matching youth on these personality and parental characteristics, and the negative effects on body image problems are cut in half, though they remain significant. In other words, screen time has no association with an index of mental health problems for teens who demonstrate high levels of self-control and enjoy a strong relationship with parents who supervise them—a minority of American teens. Yet even teens with these characteristics show greater risk of body image issues if they are heavy users of social media.

In other words, strong parental relationships and supervision over social media use can diminish its adverse mental health effects on teens. Certainly, far more research is needed on social media, but these findings are similar to research on other teen behaviors, such as gaming disorders and underage alcohol consumption. 

One meta-review of gaming disorder and parental supervision in the Frontiers in Psychology journal concluded, “parental monitoring, including obtaining more knowledge about daily adolescent activities and setting rules about Internet use time, place, and content, might decrease adolescents’ Internet gaming disorder.” 

A 2015 study in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking suggested that removing access to the device, especially in the bedroom, was the most effective method to reduce overall gaming time. The trend in all gaming research is that more parental control reduces the chance of negative outcomes. 

A meta-review of parental supervision and teen alcohol use found that “when parental knowledge (of teen drinking) increased, the likelihood of adolescent drinking decreased,” meaning that parental awareness of drinking reduced alcohol use.

The review concluded that “when adolescents do not perceive that their parents are supervising their activities closely, adolescents are more likely to let their own preferences guide their decision.”  While parental supervision may not be a silver bullet for every parenting situation, most research indicates that it does make a positive difference in certain teen behaviors. 

There may be legitimate problems with social media, and the study notes that some teens with parental restrictions suffer body image problems after spending lengthy periods on social media. But it’s unclear that age verification effectively treats modern ills. Parenting habits must be considered as a factor before a causal relationship can be established between social media and teen mental health. 

The Gallup study noted that only 25% of parents “strongly agree” with restricting screen time, while an Ipsos survey for data protection company Aura found that only 29% of parents use parental control tools on image and video apps like Instagram and TikTok. In a CivicScience poll, 27% of parents reported using screen time limits daily, while 40% reported using no restrictions. 

Politicians should not pass constitutionally dubious laws like these social media laws. Instead, they could consider other options. As the Gallup report concludes:

These parenting relationship patterns strongly predict youth mental health. Children whose parents invest heavily in discipline, monitoring, and loving support have children who score one standard deviation higher on the mental health index than children whose parents have a weak relationship with their child, leave them unsupervised, and do not try to restrict screen time.

Lawmakers should be looking to social media education campaigns that explain the potential benefits of parenting interventions and emphasize existing parental control tools already available in the devices and apps to help parents and children without government overreach.