How Socializing Online Affects Kids

Nov 1, 2023

The JED Foundation, a nonprofit member in the Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health, finds that while there are risks for kids in interacting online, there are benefits as well.

Key Takeaways

  • Young people from marginalized communities are particularly at risk in interactive digital environments, including social media, gaming and virtual reality spaces. At the same time, youth from these communities and others often find opportunities for connection online that they may not have in real life.
  • While certain kinds of online interaction can have negative impacts, others are, in fact, beneficial.
  • Parents play a role in helping to mitigate the dangers, but so should policymakers, tech companies and young people themselves.

The warning from the U.S. Surgeon General could not have been clearer: In a report released earlier this year, Dr. Vivek Murthy stated, “There are ample indicators that social media can…have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”1


That potential for harm is real. 95% of young people ages 13-17 report using a social media platform and more than a third say they use social media “almost constantly.”2 Significant numbers of young people spend time gaming and engaging on augmented and virtual reality environments. Although there are some important benefits to interacting with others online, particularly for young people who are marginalized, a lot of time spent online increases risk of negative encounters and experiences and can interfere with sleep and other important off-line activities.


Which experiences pose the most risk and which can actually benefit young people? And which populations are most vulnerable to harm? The Jed Foundation, a nonprofit member in the Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health, recently worked with Raising Good Gamers, a mental health advocacy organization, to convene an interdisciplinary panel of experts tasked with conducting a comprehensive survey of relevant and reliable research on the topic.


Their findings? There are clear benefits to digital interaction—particularly for youth from marginalized communities, who find connection online. But they also identified areas of real concern, such as the possible link between time spent online and the risk of developing addictive behaviors. Here’s what adults should know about evaluating children’s experiences across digital communities.

95% of young people ages 13-17 report using a social media platform and more than a third say they use social media “almost constantly.”

Who Is Most at Risk?

A widespread swath of demographic groups are more prone to the negative impacts of socializing online than others. They include:


  • Adolescent girls, for whom time spent online puts them at higher risk of eating disorders and self-harm
  • Young people who identify as Black or Latino, as this group experiences more discrimination online than most other populations
  • Young people who have a tendency to compare themselves negatively to others or who are already prone to mental health issues and who lean heavily on social media for social connection
  • Young people at the low end of the socioeconomic spectrum, who are less likely to have protections such as family monitoring of their participation in online spaces
  • LGBTQ+ youth, who are twice as likely as heterosexual youth to be cyberbullied and who encounter relatively high levels of hate speech online
  • Children and young adolescents, who tend to possess less self-regulation and critical thinking skills than older teens and young adults


What Behaviors and Content Are Riskiest?

Researchers identified passive behavior—reposting rather than actively engaging with others—and behavior that resembles addiction—such as constant scrolling to the exclusion of other activities—as leading to poor mental health outcomes. Additionally, any behavior that disrupts other aspects of children’s lives, such as sleeping, exercising and socializing offline, can increase the risk of anxiety and depression.


In terms of what children and teens are seeing online, several types of content may have a negative impact:


  • Unsurprisingly, content that constitutes cyberbullying: This is particularly pernicious when it comes from anonymous sources and can lead not only to depressive symptoms but to substance abuse and self-harm. Those who already show signs of depression and anxiety are particularly vulnerable.
  • Content about eating disorders, addictive substances, and thoughts or behaviors related to self-harm can encourage some young people to engage in such behaviors themselves
  • Unwanted sexual content or solicitations


Are There Positives to Socializing Online?

Yes—particularly for members of marginalized communities, such as LGBTQ+ youth and ethnic and racial minorities. While these young people may face more risk of cyberbullying, they also benefit from finding support among others with shared experiences. Connecting online gives such individuals opportunities to build their cultural identities and engage in social activism. Additionally, young people who exhibit healthy self-esteem, resilience and the ability to self-regulate can enjoy time spent socializing and gaming online with lower risk of adverse consequences.


How Can We Protect and Support Kids?

By communicating openly about the risks of socializing online, setting clear limits on screentime, and helping children develop awareness about when and how interacting online can benefit them and when there are risks, parents and caregivers can have a profound effect.


What’s more, social support, from family as well as friends, appears to have an important influence on young people in general, and specifically on how they are affected by interacting online. Studies have found that young people who feel that they have social support from parents were less likely to develop addictive internet behaviors, and strong peer relationships among young people have been linked to lower rates of depression.


But there are other ways to protect children and young adults, according to experts, and those safeguards can be implemented by everyone from policymakers to technology companies to young people themselves. Learn how we can all make a difference by reading the full report.

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