A realistic way to protect kids from social media? Find a middle ground


Ahmed Othman isn鈥檛 on TikTok and doesn鈥檛 want to be.

He and his younger sister got iPhones when they were in eighth and seventh grade respectively, but with no social media, just iMessage. Their parents, who are both computer scientists, spent the next year teaching them about social media, bombarding them with studies about its effects on teen mental health.

鈥淭hey really tried to emphasize social media is a tool, but can also be like your worst enemy if you so make it,鈥 Othman said.

Now 17, Othman credits his parents鈥 deep involvement for what he calls a 鈥渉ealthy relationship鈥 with his phone. That includes staying away from TikTok.

鈥淭he algorithm is so potent that I feel like, you know, TikTok might not benefit me,鈥 he said.

Othman, who鈥檚 originally from Libya and lives in Massachusetts, is an outlier among his peers, nearly two-thirds of whom are on TikTok either with or without their parents鈥 permission, according to the Pew Research Center.

Othman鈥檚 parents took a middle ground approach that a growing number of experts say is the most realistic and effective way of teaching children about social media: Rather than an outright ban or allowing free reign, they recommend a slow, deliberate onboarding that gives children the tools and information they need to navigate a world in which places like TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat are almost impossible to escape.

鈥淵ou cannot just expect that the kids will jump into the world of social media, learn how to swim on their own,鈥 said Natalie Bazarova, a professor of communications and director of the Cornell Social Media Lab. 鈥淭hey need to have instruction. They need to have practice on how to behave on social media. They need to have understanding of risks and opportunities. And they also need to learn that in a way that is age appropriate.鈥


The harms to children from social media have been well-documented in the two decades since Facebook鈥檚 launch ushered in a new era in how the world communicates. Kids who spend more time on social media, especially when they are tweens or young teenagers, are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, according to 鈥 though it is not yet clear if there is a causal relationship.

Many are exposed to content that is not appropriate for their age, including pornography and violence. They also face bullying, sexual harassment and unwanted advances from their peers as well as adult strangers. Because their brains are not fully developed, teenagers are also more affected by social comparisons than adults, so even happy posts from friends could send them into a negative spiral.

Lawmakers have taken notice and have held multiple congressional hearings 鈥 most recently in January 鈥 on child online safety. Still, the last federal law aimed at protecting children online was enacted in 1998, six years before Facebook鈥檚 founding.

Last May, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a warning saying there is not enough evidence to show that social media is safe for kids and urged policymakers to address the harms of social media the same way they regulate things like car seats, baby formula, medication and other products children use. Parents, he stressed, can鈥檛 do it all, although some 鈥 like Othman鈥檚 鈥 try.

Othman at first wanted a phone 鈥渨ith everything on it, no restrictions.鈥

鈥淏ut like now, after the years passed, I really do understand and appreciate what they did,鈥 he said.


Of course, the Othmans鈥 approach may not work for every family. Most parents are not computer scientists, and many don鈥檛 have the time or expertise to create a crash-course on social media for their children.

But even when parents are vigilant, that鈥檚 still no guarantee their children won鈥檛 fall prey to social media鈥檚 traps.

Neveen Radwan thought she did everything right when she gave her children phones: putting restrictions on their accounts, having access to their passwords, taking away their phones at night, setting everything to private.

鈥淚 made sure that everything was very, very, you know, airtight,鈥 said Radwan, who worked in information technology for 20 years.

Her daughter didn鈥檛 get a phone until she was 13. She started using social media in the eighth grade. When she was 16, she was diagnosed with anorexia.

鈥淲e were right in the beginning of (the COVID lockdowns) and it progressed very quickly because we were at home and she was on social media quite a bit at the time,鈥 Radwan recalled.

An avid athlete, the teen started looking for workouts and ways to stay healthy on Instagram. Soon, though, the algorithm began showing her social media challenges like 鈥渉ow to stay under 500 calories a day鈥 and 鈥渋f you want to stay skinny, you need to be able to fit in a baby swing.鈥 Within two or three months, Radwan said her daughter was in the hospital.

Today, Radwan speaks about the harms of social media to teens and has joined a lawsuit against Facebook and Instagram parent company Meta Platforms Inc. that seeks to hold the tech giant accountable for the harms its platforms have caused to children and teens. Her daughter has recovered and is attending college.


While parents are definitely part of the equation, most of the the teens and experts interviewed by 蘑菇影院 pointed to schools as the key place where all children can learn about 鈥渄igital citizenship,鈥 the umbrella term that includes news media literacy, cyberbullying, social media balance and now even artificial intelligence literacy.

鈥淲e have sex education. We don鈥檛 have things about like online safety,鈥 said Bao Le, a 18-year-old freshman at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. 鈥淎nd a lot of kids are dying of suicide, you know, text sextortion. So I think it鈥檚 really important the school also teaches this.鈥

But while some schools offer digital literacy or online safety programs, these are still few and far between. Teachers already face pressure to teach the regular curriculum while also dealing with staffing shortages and funding issues. Not only that, but kids are often encouraged to be on social media if they want to participate in extracurricular activities and other school programs.

Some schools opt to ban phones altogether, but just as with parental bans, kids often find a way. For instance, at schools that collect the gadgets from kids in the morning, students say they get around it by turning in fake phones. To get around parental bans, they set up social media accounts on friends鈥 phones, computers or buy burner phones to keep using after they have turned in their official phone.

鈥淗ope is not a strategy. And pretending that (social media) doesn鈥檛 exist is also not a strategy, because we have to deal with real life,鈥 said Merve Lapus, vice president of education outreach at the nonprofit Common Sense Media, whose digital citizenship curriculum is used in more than 90,000 schools in the U.S. 鈥淥ur kids are being exposed to it in some shape or form. They鈥檙e hearing about it with their friends. The pressure to feel connected has not changed. I mean, these are all pressures we felt as kids.鈥

To really connect with kids, he said, it鈥檚 best to get deeper into the pressures they face when it comes to social media, and validate that those are real pressures.

鈥淚 think that鈥檚 one of the challenges right now, is that it becomes the center of attention only when it鈥檚 problematic,鈥 Lapus said. 鈥淎nd so we frame these tools as only problematic tools very easily, very quickly, and our kids will say, you just don鈥檛 get it, I can鈥檛 talk to you about these things because you don鈥檛 understand.鈥


Over the past decade or so, nonprofits and advocacy groups 鈥 many run by young people who emerged from their own struggles with social media 鈥 have popped up to offer help.

Larissa May stumbled on to social media a decade ago when she was in high school 鈥渨ithout any roadmap鈥 on its dangers or how to use it. May said she was dealing with depression and anxiety that social media exacerbated. In college, she became 鈥渙bsessed鈥 with social media and digital marketing, running a fashion blog where she was posting on every day.

鈥淚 got to a point where I was spending 12-plus hours a day on my phone in my room, more focused on my digital identity than the world around me, my mental health, my physical health, my sleep,鈥 May recalled. She almost took her own life.

The turning point came when May started going to a psychiatrist almost every day, with clear instructions of what she needed to do: Take antidepressants, start moving her body sleep, and start socializing.

鈥淗owever, I was spending all of my day on my phone, which they never addressed, and being on my phone prevented me from doing all of those things,鈥 May said. 鈥淎nd it wasn鈥檛 until one day where I had this, you know, midnight thought of, why can I not heal? And it was because I hadn鈥檛 healed my relationship with technology.鈥

So, she shut down her fashion blog and started HalfTheStory in 2015, with the intent of gathering stories from young people such as Othman to understand how social media was affecting them.

鈥淎nd what I found out was that I wasn鈥檛 alone in my struggle,鈥 she said.

Today, HalfTheStory works with young people to build better relationships with technology, on their own terms, starting in middle school even before some kids have a device.

To May, abstinence is not the answer to teens鈥 problems with social media.

鈥淲hat I learn from every single one of our teens is that they wish their parents had more boundaries for them,鈥 she said. 鈥淎nd I think that parents feel afraid because honestly, a lot of violence and conflict erupts around devices.鈥

Technology writer covering social media and the internet