Digital Mom: Medical experts issue warnings on social media; federal limits proposed. Steps parents can take.


Is anyone else feeling overwhelmed, worried and unsure of what we’re supposed to be doing about our kids and social media? It’s in the news EVERY. DAY. And frankly, it keeps me up at night.

A few weeks ago, the U.S. surgeon general talked about how harmful social media is for young people. He addressed two main issues: what they are consuming and the amount of time they are spending. His concerns align with the most recent JAMA study that found that habitual checking of social media in early adolescence may be associated with changes in neural sensitivity to anticipation of social rewards and punishments, which could have implications for psychological adjustment.

There is also some new legislation being introduced or discussed. So far, there’s a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that would ban social media for anyone under 16 and some local proposals to require parental consent for anyone under 16.

While most everyone on the planet agrees that something has to be done, this is a complex issue and any changes won’t be straightforward wins. There are risks with every option.

Social media companies will push back hard on any legislation and likely argue that it’s up to parents to control usage. They won’t forfeit the time spent by 13, 14 and 15 year olds without a fight. Time is money to social platforms. We can’t assume new federal laws are an inevitability or on a quick timeline.

I do think the concept of introducing parental consent could get traction. The platforms all have some form of parental controls today and introducing consent would be an extension of those controls, providing parents with more agency. 

However, measures like these might create new problems or exacerbate existing ones. First, kids will figure out ways around a ban or consent requirement—many already lie about their age when they sign up. Also, platforms might spend less time and fewer resources protecting kids under 16 if a ban or parental consent is in place. Kids could potentially wind up exposed to more content that is less appropriate than they are today. And finally, social media is a vital source of information and connection for many young people who feel isolated, disenfranchised or different in their real-life communities. A ban or consent requirement could cut them off from valuable access.

While we see what happens with legislation, there are actions parents can take. Worried caregivers can consider sharing the JAMA study with their kids to help them understand where they’re coming from. Parents can also set or refresh social media and device screen-time limits for their kids and monitor how much time they are spending. Finally, parents can also consider their own screen and social media usage. I know, I know. But if we’re serious about this, we need to be self-aware, right?

Sarah Gallagher Trombley is a 20-year veteran of the social and digital media industries and a Pelham mom. She publishes “Thoughts from a digital mom,” a weekly newsletter about social media safety and kids. You can subscribe to her newsletter or follow her on Instagram @digitalmomming and Twitter @tfadigitalmom.