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Social media: Where to draw the line for teens

A group of teens standing around all looking at their phones.

Oct. 4, 2019—It's the rare teen who doesn't use social media. By some estimates 97% of all U.S. adolescents use at least one of the most popular apps like YouTube, Instagram or Snapchat.

That screen time has benefits (like connecting with peers) as well as risks (like peer pressure and cyberbullying). If you're a parent, you may wonder: Where do I draw the line?

A new study in JAMA Psychiatry might offer some guidance. It found that adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media may face a higher risk of mental health problems.

The ins and outs of social media for teens

Nearly 6,600 U.S. teens and preteens were surveyed from 2013 to 2016. They were 12 to 15 when the study began and 14 to 17 when it ended. Each year, they answered questions about their mental health and how much time they spent on social media.

Researchers were interested in two types of behaviors that can indicate mental health problems: internalizing and externalizing.

Internalizing behaviors include:

  • Withdrawing socially.
  • Having trouble coping with anxiety or depression.
  • Directing feelings inward.

Externalizing behaviors include:

  • Acting aggressively.
  • Acting out.
  • Disobeying rules.

The study found that the kids who used social media for more than three hours a day were more likely to report high levels of internalizing compared with those who used no social media.

But any amount of time spent on social media raised the odds of internalizing—either alone or combined with externalizing behaviors.

These findings don't prove that social media causes mental health problems, the researchers were careful to say. But it may give parents reason to set some limits.

Where to start

To balance your teen's online and offline life, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises creating a family media use plan . Parents can use it to set some simple rules for when, where, how much and what kind of media will be used in your household.

Want to learn more about keeping kids safe online? Take this quiz about teens and social media.

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