Six Families Offer Ideas to Manage Teen Social Media Use

9 min read

July 2, 2024 — No one disputes that teens spend a great deal of time online with social media, and some parents have gut-wrenching stories of their children attempting suicide after online bullying, but these platforms can also educate, connect, and help teens.

All of this is back in the headlines after U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy called for a warning label on social media platforms, citing mental health harms to youth. The plea was met with a range of reactions — from full support to claims that it wouldn’t change a thing. A day later, the Los Angeles Unified School District proposed a school day ban on cell phones and social media platforms, joining others in a movement that’s applauded by some parents and teachers and is gaining steam. 

The issue is real: A recent Gallup poll found that 51% of teens spend at least 4 hours a day on social media. 

Meanwhile, in real life, households with teens must decide on the policies at home to strike that balance on the side of benefit. 

Here’s how a half dozen households do it, along with their vote on the warning label.

No Text Sundays

The first Sunday of the month is “No Text Sunday” at the O’Masta household in Tucson, AZ. It’s one of several policies in place, said Lisa O’Masta, the CEO of, a school-based program based in Portland, OR, that has educated more than 2 million students across the U.S. on how to create a healthy relationship with technology.  She and her husband, John, have two teen boys, 19 and 18, who live at home. From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on this Sunday, no texting by anyone in the family is allowed. 

“When I remind them it’s No Text Sunday, they groan,” she said. “But they do it.” 

She also admitted they’re all watching the clock and poised by their phones by 6:58 p.m. But it leads to more family conversations than normally have, she said.

There’s also the “10 apps” rule. If they want to add an app, they have to delete one to keep the total at 10, she said. When both go off to college (one just finished his freshman year), they’ll probably want — and get — more apps, she said.  And as the teens age, she and her husband have adjusted the policies. They used to track online activity but don’t anymore. 

At night, however, all devices are plugged in for charging and kept in the kitchen overnight.

O’Masta knows full well the dangers of social media, and not just from her day job. Four years ago, her younger son got into an online community where another user was messaging him that his parents were bad and made other bullying and inflammatory comments. Her son attempted suicide. “Fortunately, he failed, and we got him help,” she said. He’s now doing fine. 

That’s when the mission to educate youth became even more personal for her.

Education is key, she said. 

“Kids don’t like to be manipulated. And they don’t want to be in danger.”  In her program, one of the assignments is to download the license agreement for a popular and controversial online platform and point out the potential dangers of it.

While the social warning label the surgeon general suggested wouldn’t do harm, O’Masta said, she doesn’t expect it, if instituted, to change behavior. With or without it, youth aren’t going to stop using social media. 

Educate Early

Susan Leidemer, a licensed professional counselor and a psychotherapist with A Work of Heart Counseling in Allendale, NJ, allowed her three teens, now 18, 16 and 13, to begin to use social media around the seventh grade, but not without a lot of education to prepare them. 

Among the information she shared: “You have to think about long-term consequences [of posts]. You would never want a future employer to look back and say, ‘Look at what we found.’ You don’t want colleges to revoke a scholarship.”

It's important to educate kids about online etiquette, she said, and how they should protect themselves online.

Among the benefits: “During COVID, my daughter had an iPad she would go on, and she learned every tip and trick related to makeup and hair — how to curl, straighten — and she learned it all from social media.” 

It kept her well occupied during the pandemic when lockdowns were affecting mental health.

Leidemer has household policies: No phones allowed while eating. Phones need to be put away an hour before bed. When at school, phones must be shut off and in their bags. Otherwise, they lose their cell phone privileges. They also lose the phone if it isn’t off by 10 p.m. 

“I think sometimes parents are afraid to toe that hard line.” She tells them: “I have plenty of friends. My job is to parent you.” And that can be hard, she admits.

“I don’t do privacy settings; I educate them,” she said. She does ask who they follow and who follows them.

She hasn’t gotten much pushback. She thinks that’s because she encouraged open communication from the start. A divorced parent, she also gets support on the policies from the teens’ father.

She sees the point of a potential warning label and agrees there are risks involved, but “at the end of the day, social media offers much more good than bad.”

Instagram, With a Time Limit

“My husband is a musician, with many followers, and uses Instagram,” said Katie Hurley, DSW, senior clinical advisor for the Jed Foundation (JED), a nonprofit dedicated to youth and young adult mental health and suicide prevention in New York City. Of course, their daughter, now 17, and son, now 15, wanted to use it too. 

When the parents asked how much time a day they wanted to have on it, “they had no idea. So we landed on 20 minutes.” They decided to start with 20 minutes and see how it went. Their daughter ended up wanting 25 and their son was happy with 10.

“We try to keep phones out of the bedroom,” she said. 

No phones are allowed at the dinner table. And devices go to a central charging station at night. Open communication is as important as policies, she said. 

“We have been educating our kids since before they had phones.” They tell them: “Keep coming to us. You can tell us about anything you see, anything you hear. We do a ton of education about fake news, fake stories. We talk openly about the harms. I am not afraid to have a conversation about pornography.”

Hurley favors the idea of a warning label on social media apps and sites. It would be like a pause button, she said, “to give you a minute to think, ‘Wait, why am I doing this?’”

The Message No Parent Wants Their Kid to Get

Tonya Kubo’s daughter, now 14, told her mom about an online problem she was having. “She said she had offended someone,” Kubo said, and she was trying to make amends, but without success. She told Kubo, an online digital strategist in Merced, CA: “Don’t worry, Mom, it’s not social media.”

It was social media, and a platform that’s been known to cause major issues, with users demanding others perform acts such as beheading pets and escalating to demands of suicide. A friend of one of her daughter’s real-life friends — someone her daughter had never met — had sent nasty messages, including one that said: “You need to kill yourself.”

The Kubos got her off that platform immediately and went back to education mode. The question for her daughter: Why didn’t she block the nasty user? “I didn’t want my friend to get upset,” her daughter explained.

Their other policies: Family locks on phones, and no apps can be downloaded without activating an approval process to one of the parent’s email addresses. While a lot of parents may think that’s all you need to do, it’s not, Kubo said. She and her husband go through their teen’s email regularly -- not to look at content, but to screen who she’s getting email from.

Phones go into the parents’ room at 8 p.m. for charging and are returned in the morning.

Kubo doesn’t believe a warning label would change behavior. 

Bucking the Pressure

In his community of Westchester, NY, a smart phone is a very typical present at fifth grade graduation in his community, said Ian Rapoport, a reporter for the NFL Network. He and his wife, Leah, won’t be following that trend for their boys, 9 and nearly 11.  

“Both have Apple watches,” he said. That’s enough so “we can make sure they don’t get lost,” can text if at a friends’ house. Their tablets have limited internet access, “with a lot of guardrails in place.”

They’re in support of the Wait Until 8th movement, which advocates parents to hold off on giving children a smartphone until the end of eighth grade. (Pressure starts to increase in fourth grade, according to the nonprofit organization.)

“I report for TV, the internet, I work from home a lot of the time,” Rapoport said, so the boys see him on social media constantly. “Social media helps me spread the news,” he said. “It helps me reach as many people as possible.”

So he sees the benefit but also the potential danger, and he's standing firm on his no-smartphone stance. “There is no actual need, and it takes a lot of the [peer] pressure off the kids.”

Rapoport believes a warning label is a good idea.

Dumb Phone, Not Smartphone

“I spend all day talking about this with different stakeholder groups, and then I go home and have to actually live it,” said Mitch Prinstein, PhD, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and chief science officer for the American Psychological Association. “I completely get how hard this is.”

He and his wife have a 12-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter and decide policy together. “They’re not on social media, but we do have devices for them. There’s no data to suggest that keeping them off social media is harmful in any way.’’

‘’We’ve sat down with our kids and we’ve explained why social media exists and how others are making a profit,” Prinstein said. 

Once they understand platforms are using users’ information to make a profit — every time they click — their attitude changed, he said.

Neither of the kids have cell phones currently. 

“We are likely to get our daughter a starter phone this summer,” Prinstein said. “By starter phone, I mean a dumb phone, a phone that does GPS, texting, and phone, and that’s it. There’s no internet access. It’s kind of like the phones we all had in 1997.”

A warning label “makes a lot of sense,” he said.” It gives a wake up call.” Parents need all the help they can get, in his view.   

Expert Insight: Researchers, Doctors

As parents struggle with the best way to manage social media use for their kids, researchers and doctors continue to try to provide insight.

Ratings: As a researcher, Douglas Gentile, PhD, distinguished professor of psychology at Iowa State University in Ames, has been involved in ratings on media products since the mid-1990s. “Even back then it was clear, parents want information,” he said. Providing it is not easy.

Parents rarely agree on what type of content is acceptable at what age, he has found. When they tried to suggest age-based content, “no matter what age we picked, a majority of parents would disagree with that age.” In his view, giving content information so parents can decide if it is appropriate is much more useful than providing age-based ratings.

Web-based education: A single session intervention of about 30 minutes to teach teens how to navigate social media is under study by Jane Harness, DO, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan. “Our hope is that it might help them to gain insight about how social media affects them.”

It would also teach them about specific changes they can make to their social media use. The university-funded project is in the beginning stages, but she hopes it will be accessible on the web and interactive, providing feedback and time for self-reflection.

Concerns are real: About 90% of the teens who are patients at the adolescent inpatient unit at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, CT, a psychiatric facility, have concerns about social media, said Elizabeth Ortiz-Schwartz, MD, attending psychiatrist. This is true even though it might not be their primary concern. “It can be more of a struggle for those already struggling,” she said. 

She’s heard disturbing stories about why some users feel disconnected and anxious after being online. One was trying to connect online and got a message: “Tell me what I would hate about you; otherwise I am going to stop being your friend.”

Often, youth struggle putting their phone away at night. It can serve as a distraction from dealing with their problems, she finds.