Here's how parents can set social media limits for their kids

A young girl uses a smartphone.
Here’s how parents can scale back their children’s social media use. (Getty Images)

In a new New York Times op-ed on Monday, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy urged Congress to require social media platforms to carry a label — similar to those found on tobacco products — warning of the mental health consequences associated with using social media, particularly for young people.

“Evidence from tobacco studies show that warning labels can increase awareness and change behavior,” Murthy wrote. He added that such a label “would regularly remind parents and adolescents that social media has not been proved safe.”

Murthy’s warning follows two reports from the American Psychological Association addressing social media use. “It’s really tragic that parents are needing to [take these measures] rather than policymakers and the platforms making [social media] safe on their own,” Mitchell Prinstein, chief science officer of the APA, tells Yahoo Life.

Last year, when the APA released its first report on social media use in adolescents, the hope was that tech companies and other stakeholders would act to protect young users from any potential harm. In 2023 Murthy issued a public statement about the urgent risk social media poses to teens, noting that up to 95% of 13- to 17-year-olds reported using at least one social media platform and more than one-third of those said they use it “almost constantly.”

However, the most recent APA report released in April found that despite their health advisory last year and teens’ almost universal use of social media, “few meaningful changes to social media platforms had been enacted by industry, and no federal policies had been adopted.”

The latest report outlines various potential risks associated with social media use among young people, including “hypersensitivity to social feedback,” disrupted sleep, “underdeveloped impulse control” and exposure to what it calls “harmful content.” It also emphasizes that social media platforms are designed for adult consumers, and children and teens need more protections. According to the APA, age limits are not enough because too many teens find a way around them, and age restrictions ignore individual differences in development and maturity. Because adolescent brains can continue to develop until age 25, age limits do not protect those above the threshold, and it wrongly implies that social media is safe for that entire group of users, the report also notes.

While the APA believes the burden should fall to tech companies and policy makers to make platforms safer for all users, the warnings in its report are bound to give parents pause — and ask themselves what they should be doing to limit and monitor their children's social media use until more progress is made.

“While we’re waiting and hoping for change, I think there are a few things [parents can do],” Prinstein tells Yahoo Life.

Prinstein encourages parents to avoid social media use for as long as possible. If parents feel like kids need a phone so they can communicate with them about pick-ups and drop-offs for school or sports, he suggests they make it a “dumb” one, i.e., one without internet capability.

Prinstein acknowledges that it’s even better if parents can get the parents of other kids in their children’s social circles on board. “As a parent myself, we have conversations with our kids’ friends’ parents, so we could kind of agree within our kids’ social circles [that] we were not going to rush to get any devices or phones for our kids, and it really helped us to be able to combat that pressure. ... It doesn’t make us feel like we need to rush to get our kids connected on a smartphone,” Prinstein says.

When deciding when it’s appropriate for a child to get their first social media account, parents should be aware that every child’s maturity level is different and thus need to ensure that their kid has learned the skills they need to use social media safely. This includes the ability to detect misinformation and self-regulate their usage. (The APA has provided a more comprehensive list of these skills here).

“The first thing that I would recommend is that families [be] thoughtful about how their child accesses social media and [set] up a plan that they feel comfortable with in their home,” Katie Spencer, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. Will they use a phone, tablet, computer or a different device? Where can they use the device? How long can they use the device?

In addition to setting up expectations for safety and use, children should also know that parents will have access to their social media accounts, including their passwords, and that parents will be monitoring their activity.

Whether it’s going for a walk, eating dinner or playing a family board game, Spencer encourages parents to create “shared positive experiences” with their kids that are screen-free. “Those times of connections are really important for development,” Spencer says. When adults unplug, it also models healthier behavior for their kids.

Kids need this same tech-free space to develop relationships with their peers. “Adolescence is a time when kids are supposed to be learning how to have more complex relationships,” Prinstein says. When kids are focused on their follower count or the number of likes a post gets, they aren’t developing the relational skills they will need for the rest of their lives.

Part of providing this uninterrupted, unplugged time is making sure your kid has turned off their notifications. “Kids have FOMO [fear of missing out]," Spencer says. "We need to turn off notifications and not be constantly interrupting their lives."

“Use parental controls to limit which hours and how many hours kids are using social media platforms a day,” Prinstein advises.

Spencer agrees. “It’s important for parents to know that if their child is on social media all day long that likely means they are not also engaging in normative childhood activities and relationships with others that could be contributing to positive child development, so we want to really be thoughtful about how time is being spent,” she says.

Prinstein believes that kids often appreciate these limits. He believes that, despite their grumbling about restrictions, most kids come to appreciate the setting of boundaries because it gives them a way to get off their phone; being able to blame it on their parents alleviates the social pushback they may receive in doing so. “Setting a limit might actually be something your kids thank you for,” he says.

Whether it’s a designated spot in the kitchen or a drawer in the parent’s bedroom, Spencer says that “these devices should not be in the same place that the child is sleeping.”

“Put all devices on top of the fridge at bedtime to make sure kids are getting that protected eight to nine hours of sleep at night,” Prinstein says.