Social media and adolescent mental health: Will Congress act?


Mental health has been declining among teens over the past decade. Social networks can be linked.

Source: Photo by Geralt from Pixabay.

While in college, I had conversations with a close friend about the lives she saw her high school classmates and friends live online. To her, their life seemed “perfect”, or at least more perfect than the one she had carved out for herself, researching and developing computerized systems to help students and soldiers better read and understand technical materials.

This comparison strikes me as odd. While I could see her friends posting happy photos of their weddings, pregnancies and families, I was even more impressed with the life she had created for herself as an award-winning researcher contributing and leading important research efforts. . As rich as her life was professionally, and even with a community of friends around her, she continued to feel like she didn’t live up to some sort of cultural norm. Seeing the “perfect” pictures of his friends’ lives made him feel bad about himself.

Social media is an integral part of everyday life for many people, including teenage boys and girls. One of the striking findings that “Facebook whistleblower” Frances Haugen has publicly revealed is that internal research by the company itself (now called Meta) suggested that social media was damaging the mental health of young women. These include findings that UK teenage girls had increased rates of suicidal thoughts after joining Instagram, that teenage girls had worse eating disorder symptoms after using Instagram, and that many teenage girls (32%) felt less good about themselves after using Instagram. New legislation being considered by the US Congress could help us better understand how social media can affect mental health.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt was one of many experts testifying to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Technology, Privacy, and the Law this week as they consider the Platform Transparency and Accountability Act (PATA). Her testimony focused on psychological evidence suggesting that there is a mental health crisis among young people, especially young women, and that social media is a key contributor.

Haidt reviewed the evidence showing that rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide attempts among adolescents have all risen sharply over the past decade. Across the world, teens report higher levels of loneliness at school.

Photo by Chenspec from Pixabay.

Loneliness is on the rise among adolescents in many countries.

Source: Photo by Chenspec from Pixabay.

Analyzes suggest that these effects are specific to social media, not all types of digital media. A recent analysis by Amy Orben and Andrew Przybylski found no association between overall digital media use and reduced well-being, but this association was significant when social media in particular was singled out. It scrolls Instagram for hours, as opposed to Netflix, which seems to have negative effects.

Orben and Haidt agree that the association between social media and well-being is important and negative (for those with knowledge of statistics, this corresponds to a correlation of r = -0.15 to -0.10). Although this is not traditionally considered a large effect size by social science standards, Haidt points out that it is large enough to make policy recommendations. For example, this correlation is similar in size to that of calcium and bone mass in premenopausal women, and to that of lead paint and IQ. We currently recommend that women take calcium supplements and stop using lead paint in homes. Haidt also notes that the effect is even stronger in girls.

Moreover, the amount of time people spend on social media seem to matter. Levels of depression appear to be much higher among boys and girls who spend more than two hours a day on social media, compared to less than two hours.

There is also evidence that teens themselves identify social media as a problem. A survey of Australian teenagers asked them why they thought teenage mental health was deteriorating, and 37% said it was due to social media.

Embracing PATA is a recommendation Haidt is making to help find ways to combat the deteriorating mental health of teens that he says is due to increased use of social media. PATA intends to increase the transparency of social media platforms and give researchers access to critical data collected by these platforms. Like Tara Wright of Stanford’s Cyber ​​Policy Center the dish, PATA “aims to address the concerning disparity between what platforms know about us and what we know about them.” Haidt recommends adopting it because it would allow researchers to further study the effects of social media on mental health.

Photo by KristopherK from Pixabay

More research on social media is needed to understand its impact on mental health.

Source: Photo by KristopherK from Pixabay

Further research is particularly important to establish cause and effect relationships. It’s one thing to note that teens who use social media more are more likely to be depressed. But it’s another to really establish that social media causes depression. There could be other factors at play: being depressed could make teens more likely to use social media, or there could be other factors, like generally higher levels of stressful events in society, that cause teens to feel more depressed and use social media more. Only by intervening, by conducting experiments where we randomly remove certain teenagers’ access to social media for a period of time, can we determine if there is a true causal relationship.

My friend from graduate school is a successful professor now. I don’t know if she still feels insecure or less than when looking at the lives of her former classmates. But I know that as a research psychologist, she would like to make sure we can find out how social media really affects us.


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