Social media harms teens’ mental health, mounting evidence shows. What now?

In January, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, Facebook’s parent company, appeared before Congress to address concerns about social media’s potential impact on children. Zuckerberg asserted, “The existing scientific research has not established a direct link between social media use and deteriorating mental health in young people.”

However, many social scientists would dispute this claim. Recent studies have indicated a causal relationship between adolescent social media usage and decreased well-being or mood disorders, notably depression and anxiety.

Interestingly, one prominent study examined the impact of Facebook’s introduction on college campuses in the mid-2000s on symptoms associated with depression and anxiety. MIT economist Alexey Makarin, a coauthor of the study published in the American Economic Review in November 2022, affirms that the findings clearly indicate a positive correlation. Makarin emphasizes that while there’s more to explore, denying the causal link between social media and mental health issues is unfounded.

Concerns and research findings stem from data revealing that social media usage among teens aged 13 to 17 has become nearly ubiquitous. According to a 2022 survey, two-thirds of teens use TikTok, while around 60 percent use Instagram or Snapchat. Moreover, girls, on average, spend about 3.4 hours daily on TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook, compared to boys’ roughly 2.1 hours. Concurrently, more teens, especially girls, are exhibiting signs of depression.

As additional studies corroborate this connection, researchers are now exploring potential mechanisms behind these phenomena. They seek to understand why social media usage appears to trigger mental health issues and why these effects disproportionately affect certain groups like girls or young adults. The objective is to discern the positive aspects of social media from the negative ones, offering targeted guidance to teens, caregivers, and policymakers.

Scott Cunningham, an economist at Baylor University in Texas, underscores the importance of understanding the underlying causes for developing effective public policies.

Increasing rigor

Widespread concerns about the impact of social media on children’s well-being have sparked extensive scientific inquiry. Early research largely relied on correlational studies, leaving uncertainties about whether social media use directly harmed mental health or if individuals with existing mental health issues were more inclined to use social media.

Some high-profile studies attempted to establish a connection between technology use, including social media, and diminished well-being. Psychologists Amy Orben and Andrew Przybylski analyzed data from multiple surveys, revealing a modest decline in adolescent well-being associated with digital technology use. However, they cautioned against overemphasizing this finding, likening it to similar declines linked to mundane activities like drinking milk or going to the movies.

More recent, methodologically robust studies have challenged this narrative. Longitudinal research, including studies led by Orben and Przybylski, uncovered nuanced associations between social media use and well-being among teens and young adults. Specifically, they identified periods, notably during puberty and young adulthood, when excessive or insufficient social media use correlated with decreased well-being. These findings underscore the importance of considering developmental stages and usage patterns when evaluating the impact of social media on mental health.

Cause and effect

Longitudinal studies offer valuable insights into causation, shedding light on the potential impact of social media on mental health. However, researchers emphasize the importance of natural or quasi-experiments to establish cause and effect more definitively. For instance, Alexey Makarin and his team conducted a quasi-experiment examining the staggered rollout of Facebook across college campuses. By comparing outcomes between campuses with and without access to Facebook, they identified a 2 percentage point increase in students meeting diagnostic criteria for anxiety or depression among those with Facebook access. This study stands as a crucial piece of evidence in understanding the relationship between social media use and mental health.

A need for nuance

The landscape of social media has evolved significantly over the past two decades, with platforms like Facebook becoming optimized for addiction, while newer platforms such as Snapchat, Instagram, and TikTok have adopted and expanded upon these features. Coupled with the widespread use of social media, particularly among young adults, the potential negative impact on mental health may be more pronounced today.

However, research on social media’s effects tends to focus on young adults, neglecting minors, which needs to change, according to Cunningham. Understanding the nuances of social media’s influence on mental health requires delving into why and under what circumstances it can be detrimental. While big data studies offer insights, they often fall short in explaining the underlying mechanisms.

To address these gaps, efforts like the SMART Schools project aim to explore social media’s impact on children’s well-being through a more nuanced approach, combining quantitative and qualitative research methods. By engaging with students, parents, and educators, researchers hope to uncover the intricate ways in which social media affects individuals’ lives. Yet, this process takes time, highlighting the need for ongoing research to keep pace with the rapidly evolving digital landscape.

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