kids mental health

There is no clear scientific evidence that social media and kids mental health issues have a connection among young people. Yet, public health officials are pushing for regulation anyway. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy recently 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. Despite these concerns, experts from leading psychologists to free speech advocates have repeatedly called into question the idea that time spent on social media like TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat directly leads to poor mental health. The debate is nuanced, and it’s too early to make sweeping statements about kids and social media.

The Complexity of Research on Social Media 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. However, 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.

Despite the challenges, health organizations have issued warnings. For example, a 2011 statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media urged parents to look out for “Facebook depression.” A 2013 study suggested such warnings were “premature.”

The Need for More Robust Data

To help answer the question, “How does social media impact kids?” researchers need more robust data. In a recent opinion essay in the New York Times, Murthy 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.

The Impact of Social Media on Vulnerable Kids

Social Media’s Dual Role

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, social media can be both a community hub for LGBTQ+ youths and a rabbit hole of warped information. The impact often depends on a teen’s existing vulnerabilities and their activities on social media apps. American Psychological Association Chief Science Officer Mitchell Prinstein noted 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.

The Difficulty in Determining Causality

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. Social media leaves some people feeling bad, but scientists still don’t understand why. Developmental psychologist David Yeager suggested possible reasons like social comparison, where we weigh our own life next to another person’s, and guilt, where we feel lazy or unproductive after spending time scrolling. While disappointment and guilt are age-old feelings, social media may provoke them.

Historical Context of Technological Concerns

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

The Role of Social Media Companies

Design 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 this is by gaming our attention or emotions. For instance, 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.

Divergent Views on Social Media Risks

Varied Expert Opinions

Most experts call for a measured approach to discussing social media’s potential health impacts, but not all. Social scientist Jonathan Haidt, in his book “The Anxious Generation,” attributes poor mental health among teens to social media and calls for parents to keep kids off the apps before high school and off smartphones altogether until age 16. However, other researchers, including University of California at 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.

Future Research Directions

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

Conclusion

While the debate on social media’s impact on kids’ mental health continues, it is clear that the issue is complex and multifaceted. More robust data and nuanced research are needed to fully understand the relationship between social media and mental health. In the meantime, focusing on minimizing the harms and maximizing the benefits of social media use is essential. As technology evolves, so must our approaches to understanding and mitigating its effects on the younger generation.

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