UW News

February 3, 2023

Q&A: The benefits and hazards of social media for teens

UW News

cell phone screen showing social media icons like Twitter and Facebook


Recent lawsuits by the Seattle and Kent school districts against companies such as Meta, TikTok and YouTube put a new spotlight on how social media affects young people’s mental health.

Youth mental health, explains the University of Washington’s Lucía Magis-Weinberg, is the result of  different things: our biologies, our relationships, our environment, how safe we feel at home, school and in our communities.

While social media has transformed many of these things, she says it should be placed in a broader conversation about mental health.

Magis-Weinberg talked with UW News about the relationship between social media use and adolescent mental health, and how she collaborates with schools to help young people be “digital citizens.”


What do we know about adolescent brain development and how digital media use affects it?

Lucía Magis-Weinberg: This is when teens reorient away from parents to peers and are very concerned with the social environment. Another big change is that adolescent brains are more sensitive to reward and excitement: taking risks, winning a competition, getting a good grade. Sensitivity to reward peaks at 15 or 16 years of age. The third big change is in cognitive control — the capacity to regulate behavior, to think about longer-term consequences, to make judgments, which continues to develop until we’re 24 or 25. This means that adolescents may take positive risks and explore, but they’re also vulnerable to negative risks and some mental health concerns.

Digital platforms tap into these adolescent changes, because they give teens 24/7 access to the social world at a time when they are still developing their capacity to regulate.

Lucia Magis-Weinberg headshot

Lucía Magis-Weinberg




The focus in my lab is early adolescence, between the ages of 10 and 13, because it’s a period of enormous transition. Puberty is changing their bodies, their brains and their psychologies. Early adolescents are also transitioning to middle school, leaving the safety of their elementary school. These are transitions that have always happened, but now there’s another transition because this is typically when young people get their own devices and open their first social media accounts.

There is a powerful window to intervene early. At this age, early adolescents are  much more open to what their teachers and parents have to say in terms of guidance offline and online. It’s an opportunity to promote healthy digital habits early on that can set adolescents on more positive trajectories in the longer term.


Please talk about your research in schools in Mexico and Peru.

LMW: Ninety percent of children and adolescents are growing up what we call the global South. But the research in many fields of psychology, including developmental psychology, has typically focused on the global North, the U.S. and Europe. There are still very big digital gaps in terms of access. In 2020, going into the pandemic lockdowns, half of youth in Latin America did not have access to the internet at home, which deeply impacted remote education. The bulk of people getting connected, especially the lowest-resourced individuals in the global South, are connecting through mobile devices. That means it’s actually easier to go to social media. Instead of using Google to search for information, they’ll use social media to search because it’s included in their data plan.

There are also gaps in the way people use technology and the benefits they extract from it. To bridge these gaps, we’re trying to teach kids to be digital citizens, to improve digital skills, and to promote better use of digital media, in general. We’re working in schools in Latin America on a digital citizenship curriculum designed by Common Sense Education, which I translated into Spanish and adapted, with teachers, to be culturally appropriate. It covers topics such as privacy and security; digital drama and cyberbullying; and digital literacy and misinformation. We are also adapting an educational app that simulates a social media environment where early adolescents can get practice on dealing with digital dilemmas before facing them in their real lives.


What does it mean to teach kids to be good digital citizens?

LMW: We want to encourage young people and adults to use digital media in ways that are safe, smart and meaningful. That’s a very individual choice. Keeping that in mind, we want people to be using digital media actively instead of just passively scrolling.

See related stories on KUOW and in GeekWire.

Young people are doing all these creative things, like writing stories and sharing them with their audiences, or making films for social justice. We know the power of using this platform: We saw young people use social media very effectively to mobilize against guns or to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

We also know that when young people can’t really find community or can’t find support locally, they can go online and find a lot of support, a lot of connection, a lot of people with similar interests and experiences. I’m thinking of LGBTQ youth who maybe are not out in their community but can freely be themselves online.


What are some healthy social media tips for teens?

LMW: We want teens to use social media in ways that are meaningful to them, that allow them to nurture relationships and contribute their ideas and voices. At the same time, we want them to be thinking of the impacts, of how other people might be feeling in reaction to what they post. If they’re experiencing digital drama, when simple misunderstandings spin out of control online, they should disconnect and try to solve this issue either in person or through a phone call. It’s harder to come across in the way you want to online.

Young people also are very sensitive to what gets a lot of likes, and that distorts their impression of what’s cool or what isn’t. You might go on Instagram and think everyone’s going out partying and drinking alcohol, but that’s not true. Instagram now has the capacity to hide the number of likes. When young people first open their accounts, we encourage them to turn off notifications and counts and set their profiles to private.

Families should also have a discussion on how to set up and monitor accounts, with consent, so that young people can be using them in a safer way, especially early on. We encourage parents to take an interest in their children’s online lives: Game together, learn a TikTok dance. It is important to keep an open and ongoing conversation about what is going on in the lives of youth, offline and online. Finally, we also want to encourage technology companies to design their products with the wellbeing of youth in mind.

For more information, contact Magis-Weinberg at luciamw@uw.edu.