Lisa LingShare on Pinterest
“I have tremendous concern about the impact that technology is having on our kids’ brains and behavioral health,” said Lisa Ling (pictured above). Paul Archuleta/Getty Images
  • Acclaimed journalist and TV personality Lisa Ling is speaking out about social media and the negative effects it can have on kids’ mental health.
  • Research has shown that adolescents who spend more than three hours per day on social media face double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes such as symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • In May, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on social media and youth mental health.

For more than 20 years, acclaimed journalist Lisa Ling has covered impactful national and international stories.

However, the stories that stay with her most explore youth mental health, a topic she reported a lot about on her CNN show “This is Life.”

“For me, the issue of youth mental health has become one of my biggest priorities…in particular, I have tremendous concern about the impact that technology is having on our kids’ brains and behavioral health,” Ling told Healthline.

As the mother of two children, 10 and 7 years old, the issue is personal, especially as her children approach adolescence. She expressed “massive concerns” about how inundated their brains are becoming during a crucial time in human development.

“For me and for most human beings, that period of middle school, [is] perhaps the most vulnerable in our lives. We are bombarded by these feelings that we have difficulty identifying and add to that now these devices, which are arguably akin to drugs because of the addictive nature of what is available on these devices and through social media and how much control these algorithms have over our minds that it’s just become such an important issue for me to speak out on,” Ling said.

To spread awareness beyond her reporting, Ling serves on the advisory council for On Our Sleeves (OOS), a national movement for children’s mental health that provides clinician-informed resources developed to help both youth and parents navigate negative mental health impacts and social media use.

On May 23, 2023, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on social media and youth mental health. He called for urgent action by policymakers, technology companies, researchers, families, and young people to gain a better understanding of the full impact of social media use, maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of social media platforms, and create safer, healthier online environments to protect children.

Studies show that frequent social media use may be associated with distinct changes in the developing brain in the amygdala, which is key for emotional learning and behavior, and the prefrontal cortex, which controls impulse control, emotional regulation, and moderating social behavior, and could increase sensitivity to social rewards and punishments.

Moreover, adolescents who spend more than three hours per day on social media face double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes, such as symptoms of depression and anxiety, according to a longitudinal cohort study of US adolescents aged 12 to 15.

“[Children] are at an important stage in their development where they have a harder time regulating their behaviors and emotions. They are also developing their self-identity and are really focused on peer opinion. This puts them at higher risk of the negative consequences of social media to their mental health,” Ariana Hoet, PhD, executive clinical director of OOS and pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, told Healthline.

For instance, research found that health outcomes like cyberbullying-related depression, body image and disordered eating behaviors in adolescent girls is linked to social media use.

If used in a positive way, social media can bring about benefits for kids too.

According to Pew Research, most teenagers who think of social media as generally positive said so because of its ability to keep them connected to and interacting with others.

“There are ways to interact with a variety of individuals that they might typically not interact with, broadening their worldview and sometimes decreasing isolation when someone feels alone,” Dr. Elizabeth Ortiz-Schwartz, chief of the adolescent transitional living program at Silver Hill, told Healthline.

Creating communities based on interest across the globe can be exciting and can in theory be done safely, she added.

“Kids and teens might learn to be more aware or sensitive to things that they have not experienced themselves as well. Additionally, they might connect with others that share similar struggles, especially if they do not have many traditional social outlets,” said Ortiz-Schwartz.

Because social media platforms change quickly and the way kids engage with them might vary, Hoet said it can be challenging for parents to keep up, making it harder for them to set limits and boundaries.

She recommends that parents consider their child’s stage of development, personality, mood, ability to follow rules, how they respond to peer pressure, and more before deciding to give access to social media.

“If they do decide to give access, it’s important parents have a conversation ahead of time with children about the expected boundaries and limits to their use,” she said.

She recommends using the OOS Family Social Media Plan to create a plan for the whole family that helps minimize conflict, support good choices, and address misuse.

“We call it a family plan purposefully — the adults in the household should follow the same rules too. Kids learn by watching us, so it’s important parents model healthy social media use too,” said Hoet.

Because kids develop socially and emotionally by stages that are not fixed, Ortiz-Schwartz stressed that delaying, slowing down, and being intentional with social media and internet use is important in order for kids to enjoy the benefits of connecting with others as they grow up.

“The goal is to do things in stages and teach kids to gradually be responsible digital citizens,” she said.

This is Ling’s goal with her children. She recognizes how hard it is for her to control device use and how scrolling mindlessly on social media changes her moods. Because of this, she puts more emphasis on limiting her children’s use.

“[I’m] just trying to delay the inevitable because I’m certain that kids are going to become as addicted as adults have become but in this crucial stage of brain development I just want to try and protect them as long as I can,” she said.

While her household isn’t device free, during the week her kids are rarely on devices. However, she does occasionally allow them to communicate with their friends via text or Facetime. On Saturdays and Sundays, she typically allows them to watch an hour of screen time and encourages them to avoid watching things that require them to be constantly swiping.

While her kids do their homework on devices, when it comes to reading, she doesn’t allow them to read books on screens. Instead, she checks books out from the library or buys them.

“I try hard but it is a daily struggle even if I don’t allow them to use [their devices], they’re trying to get mine. Sadly, kids don’t know how to be bored anymore, they feel like they need to fill every second,” said Ling.

She didn’t always put limits on screens and technology, though.

“I’ll be honest, 10 years ago when my little girl was a baby, I didn’t know any better so I would constantly give her a device to placate her. Whenever she was fussy or temperamental, I would give her my phone and I knew instantly that that would calm her down,” said Ling.

As more and more research came out about the negative impacts of screens and how excessive use during infancy can result in diminished executive function by age 10, she became concerned.

“I could see the behavioral changes in my child whenever I would try to take it away from her. There was nothing that compared, she would rather forgo playing or interacting with other kids to have a device in her hand,” said Ling.

While it’s really hard to limit use, she encourages other parents to heed the warnings from research.

“We’re all in this together. This is not an attempt to shame anyone,” said Ling. “I’m trying to sound the alarm to other parents so that they don’t repeat the behavior that I employed when my kid was a baby.”

Many parents prioritize keeping their children safe and in today’s world that includes keeping them safe from harms of social media and technology.

Ortiz-Schwartz said warning signs that social media may be problematic for your child include if it interferes with household, academic, or social expectations outside of online connections.

“Additionally, if they are consuming content that appears to drive or encourage problematic behavior, or anything that interferes with sleep and self-image,” she said.

For more guidance, Hoet recommends the OOS guide How to Know if Your Child Has a Social Media Problem.