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How to help young people limit screen time — and feel better about how they look

LA Johnson

U.S. teens spend more than eight hours a day on screens, and there's growing concern over how social media may affect their mental health.

Now, a new study, published Thursday by the American Psychological Association, validates what some parents have experienced when their teenagers cut back: They seem to feel better about themselves. I've seen this in my own kids when they return from summer camp, where phones are not allowed. They seem more at ease and less moody.

Social media can feel like a comparison trap, says study author Helen Thai, a doctoral student in psychology at McGill University. Her research found that limiting screen time to about one hour a day helped anxious teens and young adults feel better about their body image and their appearance.

Her research arose from her own personal experiences.

"What I noticed when I was engaging in social media was that I couldn't help but compare myself," Thai says. Scrolling through posts from celebrities and influencers, as well as peers and people in her own social network, led to feelings of inferiority.

"They looked prettier, healthier, more fit," Thai says. She was well aware that social media posts often feature polished, airbrushed or filtered images that can alter appearances in an unrealistic way, but it still affected her negatively.

So, Thai and a team of researchers decided to test whether slashing time on social media platforms including Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat would improve body image. They recruited a few hundred volunteers, aged 17-25, all of whom had experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression — which could make them vulnerable to the effects of social media.

Half of the participants were asked to reduce their social media to 60 minutes a day for three weeks, Thai says. The other half continued to use social media with no restrictions, which averaged about three hours per day.

The researchers gave the participants surveys at the beginning and end of the study, that included statements such as "I'm pretty happy about the way I look," and "I am satisfied with my weight." Among the group that cut social media use, the overall score on appearance improved from 2.95 to 3.15 on a 5-point scale. This may seem like a small change, but any shift in such a short period of time is striking, the authors say.

"This randomized controlled trial showed promising results that weight and appearance esteem can improve when people cut back on social media use," wrote psychologist Andrea Graham, co-director of theCenter for Behavioral Intervention at Northwestern University, who reviewed the results for NPR.

Graham says it's encouraging that college students were willing to cut back screen time, even for three weeks. "This provides some evidence that it may be feasible to engage this age group in reducing social media use," she says. Though this study included people who had symptoms of anxiety or depression, Graham says it's worth evaluating this approach with other groups, such as people with or at risk of eating disorders. It's also possible the benefits of cutting back could extend more broadly to anyone in this age group.

Social media platforms are always evolving and attracting young users. "The digital world is here to stay," says Thai. So, she says, the question becomes, "how do we adapt to this new world in a way where it wouldn't negatively impact us or control us?"

Here are some ideas to try:

1. Curate your social media feed to limit content that makes you feel bad

Instagram and TikTok are filled with idealized images of bodies. Filters can help people appear slimmer, more tan or wrinkle-free. "The algorithm is pushing body-centric content to you because that's what sells," says Lexie Kite, co-author with her twin sister of More Than a Body: Your Body is an Instrument, Not an Ornament. She says social media platforms can amplify harmful cultural messages — especially for girls and women — that they are most valued for their beauty and sex appeal.

So, it's up to the user to push back. "Be incredibly mindful, as you scroll, of how each creator, each image, each account makes you feel," Kite says. If a post or story makes you feel uncomfortable or less-than, make a choice to mute or unfollow. "That's what I do," Kite says. "You are the only one who can curate your feed."

2. Schedule a one-day break from devices each week

Artist and film-maker Tiffany Shlain says there's a power to unplugging one day a week. She turns off her devices every Friday evening, and takes a 24-hour break, that she now refers to as "Tech Shabbat." She and her family started this tradition 13 years ago when her children were young.

"There's something about that full day off each week that really resets me and each member of my family in a deep way," she says. And the irony of disconnecting from social media: "It's the day I feel most connected to my family."

She's the author of 24/6: Giving up Screens One Day a Week to Get More Time, Creativity, and Connection, and is currently working on a film about the adolescent brain. For teens, the weekend can result in fear of missing out – or FOMO. On social media, everyone can appear happy and popular, so it's hard not to compare. "Comparison is the thief of joy," says Shlain — a quote she recently saw displayed by an artist friend. So Friday night can be a good time to turn it off.

3. Turn off notifications and set limits on use of social media apps

If your intention is to limit social media to an hour a day, start by tracking your time on each app. The iPhone has a screen time tracker that lets you know how much time you spend on apps and websites, as well as how often you pick up your device.

"Smartphones allow you to set limits for individual apps to help with managing use," Thai says.

Also, you can turn off your social media notifications so they don't show up on your home screen. And set a daily downtime in your device settings. Thai says it comes down to goal setting, and then tracking your behavior to help keep yourself accountable.

4. Use the time you were giving to social media to invest in real-life activities instead

This may sound obvious, but seeing your friends on social media is not the same as spending time with them. So, make some plans to connect with friends in real life. The same goes for self-care. Thai says she's been taking a break from social media, which began as a New Year's resolution. "I noticed less screen time meant more time for me to fit in other aspects of my life that I wanted to keep more consistent, like physical activity, reading, [and] listening to podcasts," says Thai.

Northwestern University's Graham has the same advice. Doing something fun can help improve your mental health, "so cutting back on social media use and doing something enjoyable may lead to a bonus benefit," Graham says.

5. Connect with people who share your interests and values

The world is filled with interesting people doing remarkable things. Social media can be a more positive place for teens or adults when you connect with people who share your interests and post inspiring ideas or stories. Kite says she unfollows people who make her feel uncomfortable, "and I replace them with activists."

She's curated her feed to be a blend of humor and advocacy – connecting with like-minded people "who are making fun of the sexist, objectifying media landscape we all live in," she says. "It makes social media fun to use."

Kite likes content creators who are willing to show up on screen without a filter "I love seeing that in my social media feed," she says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.