July 17, 2024

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What science actually says about social media’s effects on mental health

5 min read

There is no clear scientific evidence that social media is causing mental health issues among young people. Public health officials are pushing for regulation anyway.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy on Monday called for social media platforms to add warnings reminding parents and kids that the apps might not be safe, citing rising rates of mental health problems among children and teens. It follows an advisory Murthy issued last year about the health threat of loneliness for Americans, in which he named social media as a potential driver of social isolation.

But experts — from leading psychologists to free speech advocates — have repeatedly called into question the idea that time on social media like TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat leads directly to poor mental health. The debate is nuanced, they say, and it’s too early to make sweeping statements about kids and social media.

Here’s what we do know about children and teens, social media apps and mental health.

Why it’s hard to get a straight answer

There is evidence that adverse mental health symptoms among kids and teens have risen sharply, beginning during the global financial crisis in 2007 and skyrocketing at the beginning of the pandemic. But research into social media’s role has produced conflicting takeaways.

While many studies have found that social media use is correlated with dips in well-being, many others have found the opposite. One problem may be that terms such as “social media use” and “mental health” have been defined broadly and inconsistently, according to analyses of existing studies. Whatever the reason, it’s challenging for researchers to find causal relationships (meaning A causes B) between social media and mental health without closely controlling children’s behavior.

That’s hasn’t stopped health organizations from issuing warnings, such as a 2011 statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media urging parents to look out for “Facebook depression.” A 2013 study suggested such warnings were “premature.”

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To help answer the question, “How does social media impact kids?” researchers need more robust data.

In a Monday opinion essay in the New York Times, Murthy also called for social media companies to share data and research into health effects so independent experts can examine it. “While the platforms claim they are making their products safer, Americans need more than words. We need proof,” he wrote.

Vulnerable kids are more likely to struggle

Sometimes, social media appears to boost anxiety and depression. Other times, it appears to boost well-being and connectedness, according to a 2022 analysis of 226 studies.

So when we ask whether social media is a community hub for LGBTQ+ youths or a rabbit hole of warped information, the answer can be “both.” Bigger factors may be a teen’s existing vulnerabilities and what they’re actually doing on social media apps, American Psychological Association Chief Science Officer Mitchell Prinstein has said.

Some studies have found that kids and teens who already struggle with their mental or emotional health are more likely to come away from social media feeling anxious or depressed. It’s hard to determine whether social media is causing depressive symptoms. One 2018 study found that while time on social media didn’t correlate with depression, young women with depression tended to spend more time on the apps.

It’s not clear why social media might affect mental health

Social media leaves some people feeling bad, some studies suggest, but scientists still don’t understand why.

David Yeager, a developmental psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, said some possible contenders are social comparison, where we weigh our own life next to another person’s. Or maybe it’s guilt, where we feel lazy or unproductive after spending time scrolling. Of course, disappointment and guilt are age-old feelings, but social media may provoke them, Yeager said.

Social media isn’t the first new technology to raise concerns. A newspaper clipping from 1882 shows an author claiming the telephone was “an aggravation of so monstrous a character as to merit public denunciation.” People in the 1920s were worried that the radio would make people stop socializing in person.

Instead of fighting about whether social media is good or bad, it’s more important to figure out how to minimize the harm of social media’s negative elements and maximize the benefit of its good ones, Yeager said.

“Our technology has changed, but human nature hasn’t,” he said. “The things that drive us, compel us and trap us are still the same.”

Social media companies design products to keep us scrolling

Like all businesses, social media companies exist to make money. That means creating experiences to keep users scrolling on their apps — and viewing advertisements.

One way they accomplish that is by gaming our attention or emotions. Washington Post reporting has shown, for instance, that Facebook’s algorithm at one point weighed the anger reaction more strongly than a “like” because outrage tended to create more engagement.

“Rather than scaring kids and parents with half-truths, we should demand policies that force companies to end harmful business practices like surveillance advertising and manipulative design features,” said Evan Greer, director at the digital rights nonprofit Fight for the Future. Surgeon General Murthy called for similar measures in his Times essay.

Why some people are playing up (or downplaying) risks and worries

Most experts call for a measured approach to discussing social media’s potential health impacts, but not all. For example, social scientist Jonathan Haidt recently published “The Anxious Generation,” a book that attributes poor mental health among teens to social media. In it, Haidt calls for parents to keep kids off the apps before high school and off smartphones altogether until age 16. Other researchers, including University of California Irvine psychologist Candice Odgers, have said the book misinterpreted existing studies to fuel a moral panic.

“This book is going to sell a lot of copies, because Jonathan Haidt is telling a scary story about children’s development that many parents are primed to believe,” Odgers wrote in an essay for Nature. Some of Haidt’s readers, meanwhile, celebrated what felt like direct acknowledgment of a difficult problem.

Future research may come at this contested question from new directions. An article published in Nature last month, for instance, recommended researchers consider how changes to behavior and cognition during adolescence might interact with social media and put mental health at risk.

Taylor Lorenz contributed to this report.

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