• Social Media: How Can FPs Help Teens Avoid Harm, Reap Benefits?

    New Paper Suggests Interventions for Youth Mental Health

    May 31, 2024, News Staff — Family physicians are in an ideal position to guide their adolescent patients to use social media in ways that avoid mental health harms and might even improve their well-being, according to a new paper that suggests interventions FPs can take.

    The AAFP’s “Impact of Social Media on Youth Mental Health” discussion paper notes that 97% of 13- to 17-year-olds use social media platforms, which are designed to engage users for as long as possible and bring them back often. Although more research is needed to determine whether social media use harms mental health or teens who already have mental health issues are simply more like to use these platforms in harmful ways, the authors list some benefits and harms that are already known.

    Benefits and Harms

    In addition to expanding access to information on health, including mental health, social media helps teens build communities that offer positive, identity-affirming content. Research on adolescents who use social media found that

    • 81% say it makes them feel more connected to friends,
    • 69% say it lets them interact with a more diverse group of people, and
    • 68% say it makes them feel that they have people who support them during difficult times.

    But social media can also expose users to cyberbullying, inappropriate content, predatory behavior, incorrect information and harmful social comparison. Those who spend three hours or more a day on social media can double their risk of poor mental health outcomes, the paper notes.

    Family Physicians Can Help

    Because family physicians care for patients across their lifespan, they are “ideal partners” to help parents and guardians maintain and improve their teens' mental wellness.

    “When physicians interact with adolescents and their parents or guardians, creating a ‘context of a therapeutic alliance’ is an effective way to establish communication or dialogue,” the paper’s authors write.

    They suggest several steps FPs can take:

    • Create an open, nonjudgmental environment that gives adolescent patients “a sense of inclusion and autonomy.”
    • Ask how much time adolescents spend on social media and about problematic use.
    • Watch for fluctuation in mental wellness — and factors such as social media that might influence it — over long periods.
    • Counsel parents and guardians that teaching teens about the benefits and harms of social media is more effective than banning its use.
    • Encourage parents and guardians to talk to teens about the benefits and harms, teach them critical thinking skills to reduce negative effects, and model healthy use of social media themselves.

    Physician and Patient Resources

    The AAFP’s mental and behavioral health hub offers members tools including CME, clinical recommendations, practice management strategies and more.

    Physicians can also refer patients to familydoctor.org for evidence-based information on a wide range of mental health topics.