Heavy use of social media among adolescents and pre-teens can lead to several poor health outcomes, ranging from unhealthy sleeping patterns and low self-esteem to greater exposure to cyberbullying. Research has also consistently found a relationship between high use of social media and mental health, including depression and anxiety. These intersecting issues have sparked public health concerns, prompting the U.S. Surgeon General to publish a 2023 Advisory addressing the matter and Congress to hold a hearing earlier this week to push social media executives to take more aggressive steps to protect children from the harm their product poses for the mental health of the nation’s youth.
Although these are concerns for all parents, the Latino community is particularly vulnerable to mental health challenges as a result of social media use. Latinos use social media at higher rates than non-Latino Americans, and have a higher percentage of their population between the ages of 10 and 18 than any other racial/ethnic group in the country. Furthermore, Latino children lack access to mental health services relative to other racial groups, thereby compounding the potential harm social media use may pose for Latino adolescents and pre-teens.
This led the Omidyar Network, a social change organization that is attempting to correct structural imbalances in society, to commission the Parents of Latino Youth Social Media and Mental Health Survey (N= 558, +/- 4.2%) of Latino parents to provide a fresh look at social media use among Latino adolescents and pre-teens.1 The survey includes several measures of Latino parents’ attitudes toward actions they can use to counter the impact of social on their children’s mental health.
Social media use among teenagers and pre-teens
The survey found that social media use among Latinos between the ages of 10 and 18 is high. The vast majority (71%) of Latino parents report that their teenagers and pre-teens use social media. Social media use is particularly high for parents of older teenagers, as 81% of parents with children ages 15 to 18 reported social media use. While social media usage is high across all demographics, when looking at social media use at the state level, parents in California report higher social media usage among their children (73%) than parents in New Mexico (66%) and Texas (66%).
The survey asked the 71% of the sample who report that their children use social media how frequently they do so. Among parents who reported that their child uses social media, 71% have children who use social media “several hours a day” or “almost constantly,” while one-third of Latino parents in the sample reported that their children use social media “almost constantly.” Conversely, 18% of parents in the sample reported that their children use social media at least an hour a day, while 11% of parents reported their pre-teen or teenager used social media a few hours a week. The high social media usage amongst pre-teens and teenagers is concerning given the correlation between high screen time and poor mental health outcomes for children.
Latino parents are highly concerned about social media’s impact on mental health
The 2023 Omidyar Survey asked parents about their level of concern regarding the mental health of teenagers and pre-tens who regularly use social media. Latino parents recognize the impact high social media use has on children’s mental health; 44% are extremely concerned and 27% reported moderate concern.
Given that Latino parents are highly responsive to fact-based messages regarding the implications of social media use, a targeted information campaign could be effective. For instance, the survey provided respondents with the following information prior to asking for their reaction to a prompt:
“The U.S. Surgeon General has said that social media can be bad for the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents. He noted that children are exposed to harmful content on social media, including violence, sexual content, and bullying, all of which are contributors to depression and poor mental health.”
After hearing this brief prompt that referenced the United States’ Surgeon General’s warning about social media use, 76% of respondents stated they are more likely to take action with their children, including limiting or monitoring their social media use. The messaging was highly effective message for Latino respondents and therefore could be effective for non-respondents as well. In fact, only one percent of respondents reported that they would be less likely to take action. This message was especially persuasive for parents in New Mexico (81%), parents with a four-year college degree or greater (79%), and parents under the age of 40 (79%).
This is a promising finding, as the survey provides evidence that providing Latino parents with fact-based messaging regarding the relationship between social media use and the mental health of minors will motivate more parents to take steps to protect their children. The goal should be to have advocacy organizations whose work focuses on improving the well-being of children to utilize this empirical data and policy information to target Latino families with outreach efforts that draw from the messaging theme tested in this survey.
Latino parents support policy interventions to protect children from the dangers of social media use
Based on survey data, Latino parents overwhelmingly support several policy approaches aimed at requiring social media companies to protect pre-teens and adolescents from the dangers of social media use. For instance, nearly all (97%) of Latino parents in the sample support “strengthening safety standards required for social media platforms to make social media safer for children of all ages by better protecting children’s privacy through apps and social media platforms,” with 72% who strongly supported this intervention. As of March 2023, there were 17 states that included media literacy language in state laws. While these states vary in their policy response, common policies include requiring media literacy instructions in elementary schools and requiring educators to complete professional development courses in digital literacy and online safety. Research shows that these types of policy interventions make meaningful differences in digital literacy, identifying false information, and internet safety, especially among children.
Similarly, 94% of surveyed Latino parents support “requiring technology companies to better and more transparently assess the impact of their products on children, and establish age restrictions for social media use on their platforms.” This includes 67% who strongly support this policy reform.
Latino parents are also highly supportive of having schools address the dangers of social media use. More specifically, 93% support (and 65% strongly support) “including digital and social media literacy in the curriculum of schools so all children are informed of the harms of social media and given some skills to help them use social media more safely.” Policy support for these interventions are consistent across all demographics, including Latino parents regardless of their partisanship, making clear that protecting children from the potential dangers of social media use is a non-partisan issue.
The data referenced here demonstrates that Latino pre-teens and adolescents use social media regularly and that Latino parents are highly aware of and concerned about the potential harm heavy social media use can have on the mental health of their children. The survey findings indicate that policy makers and social media platform companies should take action to provide greater protections for children and be responsive to the Latino community’s concerns.
Frustration with social media companies is shared across both political parties, making legislation to reduce online threats to children a rare opportunity for bipartisanship. Congress should feel confident leaning on this issue, as Latino parents overwhelmingly support common-sense approaches to increase children’s digital literacy and knowledge of the dangers that come with using these platforms and ensure accountability for companies who promote and market social media apps and platforms to adolescents. This is in line with several bills that have been advanced in Congress, such as the Kids Online Safety Act, which would require social media companies to do more to take reasonable measures to prevent harm, a policy that Latino parents in this survey overwhelmingly support. Furthermore, the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act, which could set an age requirement of 13 for social media accounts to be set-up, is consistent with the attempts of several states to establish age restrictions for social media accounts and require parental consent for children to sign up for accounts. There is consensus across both parties that more action must be taken, and this data makes clear that Latino parents will support aggressive action and want to see this happen now.
- The survey data referenced herein was produced independently by a third-party firm, BSP Research on behalf of Omidyar Network . Outside of his work at Brookings, Dr. Gabriel Sanchez serves as Director of Research for BSP Research and was part of the group of scholars who designed and implemented this survey.