Newswise — ALBANY, N.Y. (June 4, 2024) — New York State legislators are poised to pass new regulations designed to limit the ways social media companies use algorithms to target content shared with young users. The proposed legislation focuses on features of social media platforms that have proven harmful to youth mental health, including personal data collection from minors.

Sarah Domoff is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University at Albany. Domoff is a leading expert on media use during childhood, including interventions designed to prevent excessive screen time and promote healthy social media use among youth and their families.

Late last year, we caught up with Domoff for insight on the ways that social media can shape youth mental health, strategies for healthy social media use and ways that regulation rooted in policy can help.

What are some of the concerns surrounding social media use and youth mental health?

In considering how social media use and adolescent mental health may be connected, the content adolescents see when they use social media, and harmful social interactions, are key factors. Certain social media content can be particularly triggering or harmful to children and teens. For example, content that emphasizes body ideals or objectification of girls or women heightens risk for body image concerns and disordered eating. Harmful interactions like cyber-victimization and bullying on social media also contribute to poorer well-being.

When teens use social media also has important implications for well-being. Nighttime social media use — or phone use after “bedtime”— can delay sleep onset, reduce sleep quantity, and notifications can disrupt sleep quality. Poor sleep quality has direct consequences for mental and physical health.

What makes a social media feed ‘addictive’?

There are many features of social media apps that reinforce use or are experienced as rewarding by teens, as well as older users. Considering adolescent development, we know that relationships with peers, identity development and the ongoing frontal cortex development all make this stage of growth particularly relevant to social media and media effects. That is, the interactive nature of social media, and the ability to get social feedback and reinforcement, can draw youth in.

There are also features specific to the platforms themselves that strategically sustain our attention or keep us on apps longer. For example, when scrolling through social media, we see posts or videos that have more shares, likes, etc. We see what’s most engaging and what we click on or are drawn to is used to tailor our social media experiences. Data on us and our use patterns drive what we see. If we view videos that portray weight loss tips or that emphasize thin-ideal models or celebrities, we may be shown more of those videos over time and could also be more likely to have similar or more extreme versions of this content appear on our social media feeds.

Social media platforms collect lots of information as we interact with them. How can this put children at risk?

Collecting information on children, and using that information to advertise products or make money, raises many concerns. Although social media users “consent” to sharing their data when they use social media, children (especially children under 13) may not understand what they are consenting to and may not have the ability to truly be informed about what they are agreeing to. That’s why we ask for parents’ permission or consent, for example, in research or in treatment services.

Rigorous protection of children online is of utmost importance because of their vulnerabilities. To truly understand the risks and benefits of using a particular app, we need to know who is receiving the data and why the data is being shared (i.e., to make money or sell products to children may be more problematic). In our work with children and helping them develop healthy and safe social media use, we emphasize that social media isn’t really “free.” It’s true that you don’t pay to access different social media apps, but you are paying for it with your attention to posts and the ads that are embedded in what you see.

What are your recommendations for protecting children’s mental health while using social media platforms?

There are several components of the recently proposed legislation in New York, as well as other federal initiatives, that are rooted in the science of screen time and how social media may impact youth. Banning platforms outright fails to consider how social media can be a lifeline for some youth and how it can foster social connectedness among young people who use social media in healthy ways. What psychologists recommend, and what we emphasize in our school and treatment programs, is first, increasing awareness and psychoeducation about risks and benefits of social media use. Ensuring that youth and their caregivers are informed, and helping them identify healthy adjustments to their social media practices, may have the biggest impact on well-being.

Some of these strategies can include being mindful and choosy about the content you see, who you follow, and how you engage with social media. This goes for all users, not just youth. Not using digital devices or social media within an hour of bedtime (and not in the bedroom) can help prevent our phones from disrupting or delaying our sleep. Having an action plan for when your child has stressful online experiences and being proactive is key.

These conversations are not a one-time event; caregivers, teachers and clinicians should have regular communication with youth about their online interactions and ensure that children and teens know what to do if they experience bullying or “sextortion” (harmful interactions, such as blackmail, that involve sexual content or demands).

My collaborators and I have started a website to compile resources for parents to navigate this. Programs and trainings for families, schools and clinicians are available in-person and virtually as well. Given the magnitude of these concerns, an all-hands on deck approach is needed. 

What steps would you urge policymakers to take to help promote youth mental health on social media platforms?

I hear from parents, teachers and clinicians about the overwhelming challenges in managing children’s social media use and its impacts. It’s not easy to set up parental controls, not enough guardrails are in place and problems occur before there’s a chance to intervene. Teens themselves describe the stress of trying to balance social media use — not wanting to feel left out, but also not wanting to see triggering content (especially for youth who are in treatment for mental health concerns). Researchers cannot stay ahead of the curve given the quick technological advances and new products or system updates.

Across communities and individuals, we need more support and an easier process to navigate the complexities and nuances of social media. First, supporting families and children who have been negatively impacted by online interactions or exposure to age-inappropriate or harmful content is critical. Similarly, allocating resources to schools to provide this sort of support, and addressing the mental health care provider shortage, should be a priority. We also need to address limitations in families’ ability to access mental health care for children.

Specific to social media use, data protection and privacy-related regulations to protect children and teens are important. Expecting parents, teachers and children to shoulder the burden is no longer a viable strategy. To this end, developing an office through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Education (like to facilitate resource sharing and risk-tracking could be a good starting point in addressing gaps in awareness, knowledge, prevention and intervention. Continued support from the National Institutes of Health and other agencies seeking to understand the mechanisms by which social media is related to well-being and mental health is essential.

About the University at Albany:

The University at Albany is one of the most diverse public research institutions in the nation and a national leader in educational equity and social mobility. As a Carnegie-classified R1 institution, UAlbany and its faculty and students are creating critical new knowledge in fields such as artificial intelligence, atmospheric and environmental sciences, business, education, public health, social sciences, criminal justice, emergency preparedness, engineering, informatics, public administration and social welfare. Our courses are taught by an accomplished roster of faculty experts with student success at the center of everything we do. Through our parallel commitments to academic excellence, scientific discovery and service to community, UAlbany molds bright, curious and engaged leaders and launches great careers.