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‘Social media isn’t universally harmful to youth,’ education around it is lacking

Psychologist weighs in on Surgeon General’s condemnation of social media

Although the Surgeon General published a report this week blaming social media in part for the youth mental health crisis, a Northwestern Medicine clinical psychologist is advising parents to look to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) advisory for more nuance.

“Saying social media is universally bad for youth is wrong and erases the good examples of what it can do for youth who are historically excluded, marginalized, or lack access to peers,” said Kathryn Macapagal, an associate professor of medical social sciences and psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “This includes teens who are LGBTQ, immunocompromised or have disabilities, and rural youth,”

Macapagal also is the associate director of the THRIVE Center at the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing (ISGMH) at Feinberg. Her research focuses on mental and sexual health and social media use in LGBTQ+ youth populations.

To schedule an interview with Macapagal, contact

Stop the hysteria and teach kids safe technology use

“I work with teens and think about how LGBTQ teens spend time online all the time. I like the APA report that was recently published, which was more nuanced and said that whether social media is harmful or beneficial depends on the teen’s situation and context,” Macapagal said. “For many teens I talk to, they see both benefits and drawbacks of social media.”

“Adolescence is an age when adults often get up in arms about very developmentally normal behaviors like social and identity exploration. We need to acknowledge that many teens are getting something out of online social spaces and try to help them reduce the potential for negative consequences and maximizing its benefits. We can also help them find ways to have their needs met offline, but sometimes that can be very difficult. Also, developmental maturity does not always come with age – a 14 year old could be more mature than a 17 year old, but isn’t always! – so addressing teens’ needs on a case by case basis when it comes to online safety is important.

“There hasn’t been much research examining the effects of social media on youth mental health over time. The longitudinal research that does exist suggests relatively small effects. Until there is more convincing data, I hesitate to say that social media is uniformly bad for mental health.” 

Learning from queer teens’ behavior

“Adolescents get some education around safe online behaviors and avoiding things like catfishing, but not enough. For example, why can’t we acknowledge the reality that teens are exploring dating apps?

We found in studying LGBTQ teens that teens are not getting a lot of information from school or parents about navigating online safety, specifically on dating apps. So, they are figuring things out by themselves or learning from peers, and some teens are extremely savvy about internet safety while others may not be. Unfortunately resources on dating safety for teens don’t address online dating.”

A new era of learning

“People get around bans and prohibitions all the time, so I question the utility of a social media ban for teens.

“Social media offers another generation a way to express themselves, figure out how they want to present to the world, and connect with others who share similar interests,” Macapagal said. “It’s another vehicle to do what I did in high school, but a lot faster.”