Tweens shouldn’t tweet | Corewell Health

Social media can become a platform for bullying, body shaming and even sexting. (For Corewell Health Beat)

In January 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, issued a statement that he believes children should be kept off social media until at least age 13, and preferably until age 16.

His reasons, he stated, were that youth of that age are still developing their identities.

Social media often shows a distorted reality that can have negative effects on how young people develop a sense of self-worth, how they develop relationships and how they see the world around them.

“I am a proponent of keeping children off cell phones until at least age 13, and in fact, if possible, I would suggest until age 16,” says Lisa Lowery, MD, section chief of adolescent medicine for Corewell Health’s Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. “Parents must be mindful and careful about what their children are exposed to.

“I’m also a realist,” she said. “It can be hard to keep our kids off social media. Research shows that looking at screens can also impact sleep quality and attention spans; parents should keep cell phones, iPads and laptops out of their children’s bedrooms.”

Seeing life through a filter

With laptops and pads being used during the days of the COVID pandemic, when many children had to attend school and do their lessons online, it can be complicated to have boundaries.

“I discourage having cell phones in school, because they are a distraction,” Dr. Lowery said. “Using cell phones and laptops can have positive aspects because of the ability to build connections. Social media allow students to virtually visit museums, see the world and promote advocacy. But overall, the bad outweighs the good for cell phone use.”

Young people, she said, don’t always grasp the filters used on social media. They take what they see at face value.

“Social media is not reality,” Dr. Lowery said. “We use social media to present our best lives and lies. People post only the photos where they look their best or use filters. They post only about the good things in their lives. That can skew our perception of reality.”

In some cases, Dr. Lowery warned, social media users go beyond choosing their best side in their posts. Some of these users present outright lies—such a predators, identity thieves and others with dark intentions.

“Social media can perpetuate bullying,” Dr. Lowery said. “We see a lot of shaming. A lot of body shaming, and that’s hard on young people. And then there’s sexting—sending sexually explicit photos to each other. Kids don’t understand the internet is forever and that these photos can be shared.”

Modeling smart online behavior

Dr. Lowery suggests that parents—who can be as bad as their kids when it comes to cell phone and social media use—be mindful of their own behavior. If the kids see adults glued to their phones for hours on end, they quickly get the message that is okay to do.

“Looking at social media can be like falling into a rabbit hole,” she said. “It can be a good idea to set limits for everyone in the family. No phones at the dinner table. No screens two hours before bedtime. Buy alarm clocks instead of using our phones as alarms on the nightstand. No phones when the family goes out to dinner together.”

When it comes to reading e-books, Dr. Lowery noted that while reading online can be a positive activity, all the child sees is that we are once again zoned in on our phones.

“Make sure you are communicating what you are doing. While I love audiobooks and e-readers, I’m old school,” Dr. Lowery said. “I like paging through a real book. And our kids should see us reading.”

In setting boundaries for our kids, Dr. Lowery recommends beginning with a frank conversation. Parents should have access to their children’s phones and all social media accounts—once they are old enough to have them—and any sites their children access.

“They won’t be happy about that, but a parent should have all their passwords,” Dr. Lowery said.

A parent also should be one of their ‘friends’ on any social media sites they use, she said.

“Have a conversation about the dangers of social media—talk about predators, explain that they should never share locations, phone numbers or any kind of personal information online. Tell your kids to think about their grandmother whenever they make a post—if you’d be embarrassed if your grandmother saw the post, then don’t post it.”

Setting boundaries

A body of research is growing that points to damage to brain development in young social media users.

A study published in JAMA Pediatrics in January 2023 shows a “dopamine dump” in the brain whenever the user accesses social media. The brain experiences a flush of this pleasure chemical that can alter brain chemistry over time.

In young children, the study states, habitual use of social media can lead to poor literacy skills and decreased ability to use expressive language.

“Expecting kids to have that willpower to resist their phones and pads is asking too much,” Dr. Lowery said. “That’s why parents need to set boundaries—and model good behavior on their phones themselves.”

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