ISU researcher says social media can hurt — and help — teenagers

AMES — American teenagers are heavy users of social media, which is often associated with a decline in their mental health, but a report on social media’s impact says the connection is more complicated.

Douglas Gentile, a psychology professor at Iowa State University, contributed to the report from the National Academy of Sciences. Gentile says social media use is often linked with depression among teens, but it may not be the cause. One thing Gentile says social media does directly impact is sleep.

“Especially if they’re using them right up to bed, if they’re taking a tablet or a phone into the bed with them, they are getting less sleep, they’re getting less good quality sleep,” Gentile says. “Of course, that can influence all sorts of things such as poor school performance, depression, anxiety.”

Gentile believes media literacy should be part of K-12 education so students understand how companies target content toward users and how things like online harassment can harm others.

“As soon as you actually show them what the science is on how these harms can work,” he says, “they change things themselves in a way that is really beneficial for them.”

Gentile says social media’s effects on teens are not all bad, saying sites like Instagram or TikTok can help adolescents in marginalized groups form positive relationships online.

He says parents can help protect their kids from the potential harms of social media. He recommends keeping phones and screens out of bedrooms, and putting limits on both the apps they use and the amount of time they spend online.