What the Research Really Says About Social Media and Teen Mental Health

On January 31, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing about child online safety with social media CEOs like TikTok’s Shou Zi Chew and Discord’s Jason Citron. Senators on both sides of the aisle voiced their support for bills that aim to increase safeguards in online spaces and make media companies accountable for what happens to young users. One of the CEO’s best rebuttals in this debate has been the lack of scientific evidence of a link between social media use and mental health, but what do the experts really say?

Zuckerberg’s Testimony: There is No Link

There were many clips from the January hearing that went viral like one of Meta CEO Mark Zuckerburg apologizing to families of young victims who died after being cyberbullied, sexually exploited, or sold illegal drugs on social media. But what seemed to have perked many ears was Zuckerberg’s claim that there is no link between social media use and mental health issues among young people.

In his opening testimony, the Meta CEO acknowledged the seriousness of the matter before saying, “Mental health is a complex issue, and the existing body of scientific work has not shown a causal link between using social media and young people having worse mental health outcomes.”

To support his claim, Zuckerberg cited a report by the National Academies of Science (NAS), which evaluated over 300 studies. Quoting from the report’s highlight, Zuckerberg said that the research “did not support the conclusion that social media causes changes in adolescent mental health at the population level.”

Forbes Breaking News | Senate Judiciary Committee | 01/2024

A Bi-Partisan Rebuttal

Several senators challenged Zuckerberg’s assertion during the hearing. Perhaps the most noteworthy rebuttal came from Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), who used Instagram’s own data against its CEO.

Referring to Instagram’s internal study, as reported by the Wall Street Journal in 2021, Sen. Hawley relayed how “the science from [Zuckerberg’s] own company” found that the platform is harmful to a large percentage of teenagers and made body image issues worse for one in three teenage girls.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-CT) pushed back against Zuckerberg’s claim that there is no proof on a “population level” by pointing to the evidence in the room. “Well, it may not be at the population level,” Sen. Coons said, “but I’m looking at a room full of hundreds of parents who have lost children.”

Another senator who took issue with Zuckerberg’s testimony was Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-GA). He reminded the CEOs that U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on social media and mental health last year, which stated that there are “ample indicators” that social media use negatively impacts adolescent mental health.

Sen. Ossof referenced research noted in the advisory that found that  “kids who spend more than three hours a day on social media have doubled the risk of poor mental health outcomes, including depression and anxiety.”

The last to address the CEOs was Sen. Peter Welch (D-VT), who expressed his optimism about what he feels is indisputable nature of the subject. “There is a consensus today that didn’t exist, say 10 years ago,” he began, “that [social media] is a profound threat to children, to mental health, to safety.”

Science Says It’s Hard to Say

The NAS report Zuckerberg cited in his opening remarks echoes what many studies find, which is that it is difficult to say what the exact effects of social media are on young people. The common conclusion is that while there are potential harms, there are plenty of positives too. 

The NAS report, for instance, states that social media use doesn’t have “purely negative or positive impacts [and] is likely a constantly shifting calculus of the risky, the beneficial, and the mundane that affects different people in different ways.” And even in his aforementioned advisory, the US Surgeon General acknowledged that “robust independent safety analyses on the impact of social media on youth have not yet been conducted.”

A widely accepted hurdle in this matter is how difficult it is to track and quantify social media use and mental health. Several social media platforms exist today and users interact with each of them differently, and self-reports commonly used when gathering mental health data are subjective. 

For these reasons and more, the NAS evaluation concludes that “it is hard to offer an overall summary of the relationship between social media and mental health beyond observing that the effects, both helpful and harmful, accrue differently to different users.” Thus the scientific community is focusing on finding ways to maximize the benefits of social media use while reducing its harms. 

A recent article from The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) that also highlights the lack of “robust evidence that social media harms adolescents’ mental health,” suggests that making the most out of social media requires changing the narrative surrounding it.

Instead of framing social media as a detriment, the ASCD’s piece recommends teaching students that social media are tools they control as a way to help them develop self-efficacy and self-regulation. But most importantly, the article implores adults and parents to be model exemplars for younger generations by using devices responsibly and thinking critically about their media consumption.

From One of the Foremost Experts

Moral panics historically tend to ensue following new technological advancements. Maybe social media is just the latest culprit of our unwarranted terror. It’s true, too, that our messaging around social media use and mental health is likely to affect how we view the issue, especially when we rely on self-reporting to track it. 

This doesn’t convince some experts, though. Social Psychologist and Author Jonathan Haidt has been following the topic of teen mental health and social media use for years and is one of the foremost experts on the matter. His body of work on social media’s effect on adolescent mental health is robust. In addition to publishing books and articles delving into the matter, he’s been invited to defend his case on popular podcasts such as the Lex Fridman Podcast and the Joe Rogan Experience

Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt | Image Source: Wikipedia

During a public debate last February, Dr. Haidt began by addressing the underlying issue with many of the reports that find no relationship between mental health and social media. That is, they “lump” everything together, including boys and girls and various screen activities, like texting.

“You just lump them all together, and you find a 0.03 correlation,” Haidt said. “But guess what? If you take the same data sets—the same statistical techniques but you zoom in on girls and social media, the correlation isn’t 0.03, it’s 0.2, which is a very large correlation in public health matters.”

For context, Dr. Haidt noted how the correlation between lead exposure and adult IQ is 0.09, a significant enough statistic for the US Environmental Protection Agency to enact several laws around the use of lead and label it as a hazardous pollutant.  

As was mentioned, social media and mental health are complex subjects and doubly nuanced when put together, especially given that most mental health data sets are made up of self-reports. But as Haidt points out, the link between social media use and mental health issues doesn’t just rely on self-reporting. Behavior, like self-harm among teen girls, can be objectively examined thanks to hospital records. For instance, as more young users flocked to social media platforms between 2010 and 2020, the rate of hospitalization of girls aged 10 – 14 for self-harm tripled in the U.S. 

Suicide rates have also drastically increased among girls and boys, 134% and 108% since 2010 respectively. These increased rates of suicide and hospitalization for self-harm are seen across other countries, like the U.K., New Zealand, and Australia. 

Haidt notes a poignant 67% increase in suicide rates among U.S. girls in a single year from 2012 to 2013. “What happened in 2012 such that many more girls were killing themselves in 2013?” Haidt asks rhetorically. “Well, 2012 is the year that all the girls got on Instagram.”

Haidt’s link between 2012 and a rise in teen girls using Instagram stems from the fact that Instagram became available for Android and was purchased by Facebook that year, and perhaps most importantly, 2012 was the year most of us swapped out our flip phones for smart devices.

Dr. Haidt suggests that those who want more evidence should ask the girls about their subjective experiences. “That’s what Facebook did in that study that was leaked,” he said in reference to the previously mentioned Wall Street Journal piece. “And what do they say? They say it loud and clear: It’s social media and especially Instagram.”

A slide from the 2019 internal study reads, “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression. This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”

While debates surrounding a causal link between social media and mental health may not come to a unanimous conclusion anytime soon, Dr. Haidt claims it’s contributing to “the biggest mental health crisis in all of known history for kids.”

What You Can Do

If you are a parent or educator who is concerned about the potential impacts social media is having on your child or students, there are some key actions you can take. An ideal solution would be for legislatures to implement regulations on the platforms themselves to safeguard young users. 

There are a few such bills in the works, including the Stop CSAM Act that cracks down on the proliferation of child sex abuse material online; the Shield Act that ensures that federal prosecutors have appropriate and effective tools to address serious privacy violations, and the Project Safe Childhood Act, which modernizes the investigation and prosecution of online child exploitation crimes.

But one doesn’t have to wait for bills to pass to protect and empower young ones. Here are several steps you take today.

  1. Teach Media Literacy: Media literacy is a set of skills that help teens navigate today’s complex media landscape, including the ability to identify fake news. These skills are also essential defenses for their mental health. States across the US are beginning to mandate media literacy education as part of their curriculum because of how crucial the skills are, especially for digital native generations.
  2. Monitor and Set Limits: Young users are especially vulnerable to developing addictive behaviors as their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain in charge of executive functions like self-control, is still developing. Working with a young person to help them set social media boundaries for themselves empowers them to take charge of their consumption habits.
  3. Be a Model Exemplar: Research shows that a parent’s attitude and behavior regarding media greatly impacts those of their child. One study even found that a parent’s screentime habits were the number one predictor of their child’s. Consider your relationship with social media and how it might be affecting how your teen uses media platforms. 

For media literacy instruction resources, visit journalisticlearning.org. For more information on defending teen mental health against social media, check out this article from the American Psychological Association.

Written by Ed Madison and Bo Brusco

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