Parents paying close attention to news headlines over the past year would be justifiably worried about the risks of letting their adolescent or teen girl spend too much time online. The intense scrutiny that began a year ago with explosive revelations about Meta‘s own internal research on female teen users has continued with government investigations into social media platforms that may, among other things, encourage young girls to compare themselves to peers and influencers in potentially harmful ways.
It’s not that TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, and other platforms are inherently bad. Or that parents can draw a straight line from a teen girl’s constant scrolling to lower self-confidence or feelings of worthlessness. Instead, like many adults, girls can get caught up in a toxic swirl of social comparison, wanting to belong, and risky vulnerability. This may be even more true for girls experiencing puberty at an earlier age than their mothers or grandmothers. That trend, which has seen puberty for girls around the world continue to happen earlier each decade, specifically puts girls at higher risk of developing depression, in addition to other mental health challenges. (Separately, early-onset puberty, or when puberty happens for girls prior to age 8, is a relatively uncommon condition.)
All of this is happening at an already delicate time in adolescent and teen girls’ lives, during a phase when they’re trying to develop a strong sense of self and the ability to deal with overwhelming feelings, as well as stitch together a safety net of fulfilling offline relationships. Aspects of the internet, particularly social media algorithms, can exploit some girls’ insecurities, drawing them deeper into self-doubt or even exposing them to bullying and dangerous content, like radicalized political message boards and influencers who promote disordered eating.
Despite these very real fears, parents and caregivers can help girls thrive online by turning to well-known techniques, like rules for screen time and increased media literacy, as well as strategies that boost a girl’s resiliency, which include praising a girl’s positive behaviors and qualities and helping her build an offline life that gives her a sense of belonging and mattering.
Screen time guidance for teen girls
The most common guidance may sound familiar, but it bears repeating:
Model healthy internet use. Dr. Jason Nagata, an assistant professor of pediatrics in the division of adolescent and young adult medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, says that one of the most important predictors of how an adolescent uses screens is their parents’ behavior. This means that parents need to respect whatever boundaries they’ve set for the household, including no texting at dinner, or putting phones away an hour before bedtime.
“If you’re telling your kid one thing, and you’re breaking those rules, they’re not going to listen to you, or they’re just going to emulate what they see,” says Nagata, whose research in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study has found links between screen use and binge-eating and disruptive behavior disorders in youth and teens.
Make sure screens aren’t displacing healthy, enjoyable activities. Nagata says that screen time shouldn’t lead to reduced in-person socializing, offline hobbies, physical activity, and sleep. Turning off notifications and taking social media breaks when screen time becomes stressful helps preserve time for other important activities, which creates a buffer against the negative messages girls may encounter online.
“If you’re telling your kid one thing, and you’re breaking those rules, they’re not going to listen to you, or they’re just going to emulate what they see.”
Talk about different challenging scenarios. Parents should have conversations with their children about how to handle various kinds of negative online experiences, like bullying and being targeted with weight-loss ads. Helping a teen problem-solve in advance can give girls an advantage in the future. Parents also shouldn’t underestimate the role that peers and influencers play in girls’ online lives, especially when it comes to body image.
Nagata often treats teen girls hospitalized with eating disorders, many of whom struggle to stop scanning their favorite social media accounts for weight-loss tips, even as they’re receiving care. He also sees girls who develop an association between screen use and binge-eating disorders, which are more common than anorexia and restrictive food intake disorders. (Eating disorders occur in boys as well, and sometimes go undetected because of gendered stereotypes about who’s most affected by such conditions.)
Nagata says that while there are some benefits for teens who use social media, like staying in touch with family and friends, others struggle in concerning ways.
“[I] think there are also teens who get stuck in some of these eating disorder or body image traps where they’re constantly comparing themselves to others, and it can detrimentally affect their mental health,” he says.
Helping girls cope with screen time and social media
In her new book, Girls on the Brink: Helping Our Daughters Thrive in an Era of Increased Anxiety, Depression, and Social Media, science journalist Donna Jackson Nakazawa reiterates well-known advice about girls and screen use, but it’s her focus on empowering girls in all areas of their lives that parents will find refreshingly helpful. These strategies include:
1. Protecting a girl’s “in-between years.”
From ages seven to 13, between childhood and adolescence, girls are in a period known as the “in-between years.” Nakazawa says that during this unique time, a girl’s brain is still developing the ability to handle stress. Yet girls often face heightened pressure from parents (and other adults) to do well in school and extracurricular activities. If they’re using social media a lot during this time, they’re also invited to constantly compare themselves to others, take in peer feedback on social media posts, see advertisements related to body image, and watch young female peers present themselves in more mature or sexualized ways. And if a girl goes through puberty at a younger age while also experiencing high stress levels, this dynamic can be harmful.
“[W]hen puberty comes in early, the parts of the brain that help put social and emotional distress in proper context haven’t yet wired and fired up,” says Nakazawa.
She urges parents to thoughtfully guide girls through this developmental stage. This includes understanding how and when girls are exposed to stressful messaging. A smartwatch, for example, might seem like a good compromise instead of getting a phone, but Nakazawa points out that girls can often access the same apps and messaging platforms available on a smartphone. Instead of forbidding access to internet-enabled devices, Nakazawa recommends being aware of what a girl is seeing or doing on them, how that could exacerbate the normal challenges of the in-between years, and finding welcome ways to protect their well-being. Dedicated time for rest, physical activity, socializing, and intellectual exploration, with less emphasis on competition and performance, can provide a much-needed counterweight to online pressures.
2. Being someone a girl can talk to about hard things.
Teens may be notoriously fickle when it comes to confiding in their parents, but Nakazawa says it’s worth the effort of consistently positioning themselves as an empathetic, nonjudgmental listener, including where online conflict is concerned. If a girl discovers she’s the only person from her friend circle not to get a party invite, or if she becomes a victim of dogpiling for a comment she made online, she should be able to process such experiences with a calm parent or caregiver.
“These are the kinds of discussions that happen during puberty and adolescence and childhood that really shape our child’s sense of belonging and mattering,” says Nakazawa. “You need to know how your child is feeling in today’s world, in this onslaught, so that you can turn that into a conversation of connection and follow up on it.”
Parents should do their best to make all hard conversations a positive experience for their daughter. An important element of this is ensuring her psychological safety during these chats, which Nakazawa describes in her book as an ability for a girl to “be insecure, imperfect, angry, confused, needy, anxious, or unhappy (or all of the above), and still be loved.” Countless people online may insist that the opposite is true, but it can make a profound difference for a girl’s mental health if her caregivers regularly offer to listen with unconditional support.
3. Noticing and praise a girl’s positive behaviors and qualities.
Nakazawa says that noticing a girl’s positive qualities — unrelated to her appearance or performance — is a powerful antidote against harsh peer criticism and self-judgment that can become common during adolescence. In fact, Nakazawa cites research showing that teens who face intense pressure to excel, and whose parents make it clear that their children have fallen short of high standards for grades, activities, and accomplishments, are at higher risk for depression and anxiety. When this dynamic collides with algorithms that encourage peer comparison, girls can feel like they’re never good enough.
Parents can still set reasonable limits and expectations, but Nakazawa says they should be focused on helping their children cultivate resilience and feel connected to family and community. Instead of critically evaluating their child’s performance, Nakazawa encourages parents to praise their positive character traits and virtues. Her examples include phrases like, “One of the things I love about you is that you are so thoughtful to your friends,” or “I notice the way you always follow through on things. That takes a lot of effort, and it’s a wonderful quality.”
4. Helping girls create their own in-person community.
Supporting a girl as she builds her own community is one of the most important things a parent can do, says Nakazawa. She refers to this as the “community effect,” wherein girls develop meaningful relationships with adults like grandparents, coaches, teachers, mentors, and even a therapist or healing professional. Nakazawa says these relationships give girls the sense that they’re safe, and have a place, in a larger community. They also help girls feel like they matter. Belonging is a key protective factor against psychological distress, including suicidal thinking, and it may help lessen the pain related to negative online experiences.
Parents should also help a girl explore her interests in the context of her community. Whether that’s gardening, science, running, or spirituality, it’s important for girls to develop a sense of purpose and joy during the in-between years. It helps when girls can do this in relationship with their friends and peers. Moderate screen time can certainly make this process more exciting by introducing girls to online resources and communities, but parents can help focus their child’s passion on confidence-building in-person activities.
Encouraging girls to make their offline community more engaging than their online world may create a buffer against excessive screen time, and help them put upsetting online experiences into perspective.
“There are so many ways to [help a girl build community] if we just put the phones down as adults and go looking for all of those different invitations by noticing what really gets our daughter excited, and following that spark with real people, in real time, in our real communities,” says Nakazawa.
If your child is feeling suicidal or experiencing a mental health crisis, please talk to somebody. You can reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988; the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860; or the Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. Text “START” to Crisis Text Line at 741-741. Contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m. ET, or email [email protected]. If you don’t like the phone, consider using the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline Chat at crisischat.org. Here is a list of international resources. If you’d like to talk to someone about your child’s eating behavior, call the National Eating Disorder Association’s helpline at 800-931-2237.