Social Media and Youth Mental Health — It’s Nuanced

Some view social media panic as a distraction from real solutions.

May 17, 2024

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By Nathan Davies, ConnectSafely Research Associate

The past 14 years have seen a sharp increase in mental illness, self-harm, and suicide among young people in the United States, particularly among teenage girls. The Centers for Disease Control found that for children aged 10 to 14, the suicide rate tripled between 2007 and 2021. Some have looked to an obvious culprit – technology – as a cause. This has been seen in the Surgeon General’s report, congressional inquiries and in state-level policies. Others have claimed that the social media mental health pandemic is a “moral panic” that can distract and undermine efforts to help young people. As both policymakers and parents consider this debate, we outline some opposing views, critically evaluate their arguments and suggest some paths forward.

Book – Jonathan Haidt, The Anxious Generation 

Recent debate about the association between teen mental health and social media has been catalyzed by Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Anxious Generation (2024). Building on his previous work and his collaboration with Jean Twenge, Haidt argues that the increased rates of youth depression, anxiety and self-harm can be explained by the widespread adoption of both smartphones and social media by young people starting in the early 2010s. He claims that new technologies have led to a range of negative effects, from loneliness, social contagion and comparison, sleep deprivation, and attention fragmentation. This mental health crisis has led to a disproportionate effect on teen girls. He proposes a series of policy interventions to push back against the shift from a “play-based” to a “phone-based” childhood, including banning social media until 16, banning smartphones until high school, and increasing children’s independent play in the real world. His arguments are echoed by a range of respectable and thoughtful commentators, such as John Burn Murdoch, Matt Yglesias, Noah Smith, and Derek Thomson.

However, important criticisms have also been leveled at Haidt’s work. In her review of The Anxious Generation, Candice L. Odgers argues that Haidt’s data shows small or mixed effects and is unable to demonstrate a causative relationship. Professor Andrew Prysbylski has published a series of studies showing how inconclusive cross-sectional data sets can be and demonstrating that moderate screen use is associated with the best mental well-being outcomes. Other psychologists have warned of the dangers of making technology a “scapegoat for society’s teens’ traumas,” highlighting that many of these arguments echo historical reactions to radio, TV, and video games. In another recent book, Unlocked: The Real Science of Screen Time (2024), psychologist Pete Etchells argues that technopanic is unhelpful. He offers a more nuanced perspective, highlighting the need for more research to understand the complex relationship between technology use and children’s well-being.

Ultimately, Haidt’s work recognizes some worrying trends in teen mental health, but his data and policy prescriptions need scrutiny. Instead of knee-jerk responses, we need more research to inform policies that recognize the disproportionate negative effects on some young people as well as the benefits they provide to many children and teens.

The New Social Landscape

One particular criticism of Haidt’s work has been his focus predominantly on the US. If social media is the cause of the teen mental health crisis, and social media use has been increasing globally, surely we would expect to see similar impacts internationally? In a global study of 168 countries outside of the US, the increased use of mobile phones and the internet had a limited impact and, in fact, correlated with increased well-being.

Looking at the scientific literature from other countries is, therefore, informative.

One recent study, in particular from Norway, found that social media appears to help, rather than hinder, the development and growth of offline friendships for teenagers. For most young people, social media mirrors and possibly strengthens offline social interactions. This challenges many people’s assumptions that “digital socializing has displaced in-person gatherings” and therefore has a negative impact on teen well-being. For a minority of those with high social anxiety, however, there can be negative implications. Instead of assuming a causal link between social media and negative effects on well-being, we need more studies from across the globe that pay attention to the complex effects on different groups of youth.

Podcast – dana boyd, on Created Equal 

In this podcast, the social scientist and researcher dana boyd offers a balanced and nuanced view of the relationship between social media and mental health. On the one hand, she highlights that we already know that stories about suicide (in both legacy and social media) increase the likelihood that those with suicidal ideation might act on these feelings. However, in general, technology serves to amplify and increase the visibility of the “good, the bad, and the ugly of everyday life.” In the case of bullying, for example, many focus on cyberbullying, but European data from the COVID-19 pandemic found that rates of bullying plummeted when kids were not at school and spent more time online. Understandably, no one is suggesting we ban school. Boyd strongly criticizes the trend towards what she terms “techno-legal-solutionism,” looking for quick technical or legal solutions to complex social problems. Instead, she stresses the important roles that parents, guardians and the wider community can play. We should reflect on our own tech habits, model good behavior, and engage young people in conversation about what they are seeing on their phones and how it makes them feel. By moving from an approach that surveys and punishes towards engaging them in conversation, it helps children openly discuss things that might make them feel uncomfortable, sad or anxious.

Closing Thoughts

To wrap up, it is right to pay close attention to young people’s mental health; few topics are as important as the well-being of children and teens. The evidence does seem to show that in the US, at least, teen mental health is worsening, and this should be cause for concern. However, at the moment, we don’t have enough evidence to support a causal relationship between social media use and mental health problems. We should be aware of how similar many of these arguments sound to past tech panics. Professor Odgers put it well when she stated:

“Two things can be independently true about social media. First, there is no evidence that using these platforms is rewiring children’s brains or driving an epidemic of mental illness. Second, that considerable reforms to these platforms are required, given how much time young people spend on them.”

Ultimately, we need to gather more data and evidence to inform policies, focus on the specific ways that social media is harming some young people (e.g. sextortion), and reflect more broadly on how we all can use social media in healthy ways to help foster better digital literacy for young people. It’s the very least that our young people deserve.

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