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17.06.2024 15:33

Social media pose considerable risks of psychological harm - Recommendations: How to protect children and adolescents

Andrea Weber-Tuckermann Presse- und Öffentlichkeitsarbeit
Universität Ulm

    Excessive use of social media can impair well-being and even cause disease. To help safeguard children and adolescents, an international research team coordinated by Ulm psychologist Professor Christian Montag has put together recommendations on social media use and published them in a consensus paper in the journal Addictive Behaviors. The researchers advise abstinence from smartphones throughout the entire school day. Montag also suggests using EU fines imposed on digital companies violating the EU Digital Services Act to fund further research into problematic social media use (PSMU).

    'Social media do not belong in the hands of children and young adolescents! No personal accounts before the age of 13!' This is the recommendation of an international team of researchers from the fields of social sciences, psychology and psychiatry published as a so-called consensus paper in a specialist journal for addiction disorders. Parents should establish specific rules with their children for the use of social media apps, such as YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram and the like, even before their first use. Beyond that, parents should also be role models and lead by example. In their article in the journal Addictive Behaviors, the research team also advocates for hard and fast rules at school. They advise teachers to collaborate with researchers – ideally with the active involvement of the pupils – in order to draw up a clear-cut code of practice for the use of smartphones within the school environment, which would then apply to both pupils and teachers. According to the authors of the consensus paper, children and adolescents should ideally refrain entirely from using their smartphones throughout the school day.

    'An evidence-based approach is crucial in order to deal with this challenging topic responsibly. We need guidelines grounded in scientific insights, and further research is undoubtedly required,' explains Professor Christian Montag. However, the situation is urgent, and there is already compounding evidence. Together with researchers from six European countries and the USA, the Head of the Department of Molecular Psychology at Ulm University has thus summarised the current state of PSMU research in the Addictive Behaviors consensus paper. The team presents research findings from media psychology, addiction research and psychiatry. The problematic use of social media, a term for excessive social media use that is harmful to health and well-being, can take on addictive-like forms. Although addictive-like social media use is not yet an official diagnosis in the World Health Organization's ICD-11, current discussions focus on whether the diagnostic criteria of Gaming Disorder can and should be extrapolated to excessive social media use. Children and adolescents with PSMU are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. Even eating disorders and self-harm have been observed more frequently. This list continues with emotional and social disorders as well as problematic body image. This said, causality between the associations need to be better established, because much research is hampered by cross-sectional findings.

    Some children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable
    Why are some people unable to put their smartphones down while others don't need TikTok or YouTube at all? 'Not all young people are equally susceptible to problematic social media use. The risk is particularly high among young adolescents. Girls are potentially more susceptible than boys,' explains Professor Montag, 'but current figures also show that the gap between the genders is closing. Emotionally unstable adolescents with little self-esteem and self-control, and therefore psychosocial problems, are especially at risk. Situational and contextual factors, however, also play a role: Have the parents and school established clear rules and binding guidelines for dealing with social media?

    The researchers also looked into the whys behind young peoples' excessive smartphone and social media use. The current assumption is that deeper psychological and social mechanisms are at play. 'Social media might be a means to regulate negative feelings and compensate for unfulfilled needs. The underlying desire seems to be a sense of belonging, recognition and admiration as well as the fear of missing out,' explain the researchers. FOMO, the acronym for the fear of missing out, is mentioned often, but also catching up with friends online and meeting new people.

    'Problematic social media use is not yet recognised as an addiction disorder. Nevertheless, it is important to identify the driving forces behind this excessive online behaviour. Not least in order to limit problematic behaviour and develop suitable coping strategies. For me, the most important question seems to be: To what extent can problematic social media use cause functional impairments and health problems?' says the researcher from Ulm. Yet there are still significant research gaps. Additional neuroscientific work is needed in particular in order to gain more insights into the neurobiology involved in social media use. What happens to the brains of young people when they consume social media excessively?

    Using fines from enforcing EU Digital Services Act for research
    Children and adolescents unfortunately quite often encounter non-age-appropriate content on social media – such as pornography and depictions of violence – which can be quite harmful to healthy child development. In an article in the journal Nature Reviews Psychology, which the psychologist from Ulm co-produced in a leading role, the authors expressly welcome the European Union's initiative to regulate digital services and markets. The EU Digital Services Act package creates an effective, legally binding basis for regulating social media platforms and their responsible use.

    Together with Professor Benjamin Becker from the University of Hong Kong, Professor Montag published a proposal in the highly renowned journal Nature in the form of a so-called 'Correspondence' on how independent, interdisciplinary research on PSMU could be financed on a larger scale by using fines imposed by the EU on companies violating the EU Digital Services Act. In mid-May, Montag presented the new scientific findings on the use of social media by children and adolescents to members of the Committee on Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth in the German Bundestag.

    Wissenschaftliche Ansprechpartner:

    Prof. Christian Montag, Head of the Department of Molecular Psychology, Ulm University


    Christian Montag, Zsolt Demetrovics, Jon D. Elhai, Don Grant, Ina Koning, Hans-Jürgen Rumpf, Marcantonio M. Spada, Melina Throuvala, Regina van den Eijnden: Problematic social media use in childhood and adolescence; in: Addictive Behaviors, Volume 153,

    Christian Montag, Peter J. Schulz, Laura Marciano, Andres Roman-Urrestarazu,
    Hans-Jürgen Rumpf & Benjamin Becker: Safeguarding young users on social
    media through academic oversight, in: Nature Reviews Psychology, Published: 18 April

    Nature Correspondence:
    Montag, C., & Becker, B. (2024). Use fines from EU social-media act to fund research on adolescent mental health. Nature, 628(8007), 268-268.

    Weitere Informationen:

    http://aus Platzgründen hier die doi-Nummern zu den Papers


    Psychologist Prof. Christian Montag conducts research at Ulm University on the problematic use of smartphones, internet and social media
    Psychologist Prof. Christian Montag conducts research at Ulm University on the problematic use of sm ...
    Elvira Eberhardt
    Ulm University

    Merkmale dieser Pressemitteilung:
    Ernährung / Gesundheit / Pflege, Medien- und Kommunikationswissenschaften, Psychologie
    Forschungs- / Wissenstransfer, Forschungsergebnisse


    Psychologist Prof. Christian Montag conducts research at Ulm University on the problematic use of smartphones, internet and social media

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