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Are Facebook and Instagram as Bad for Teens as We Fear?

Do the whistleblower's revelations prove that social media is harming teens?

Key points

  • The leaked Facebook documents from whistleblower Frances Haugen have many people convinced that social media is harmful to teens.
  • A closer examination of these documents does not reveal a smoking gun.
  • Larger and more rigorous empirical studies suggest that screens do not positively or negatively affect most young people's well-being.

You might have read the recent headlines about “whistleblower” Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager who has been harshly criticizing Facebook over the past weeks for its behavior. She amassed internal documents that became part of a Wall Street Journal investigative report known as “The Facebook Files.”

Among the number of accusations, the documents allegedly show that Facebook knew that Instagram, which it owns, is damaging the mental health of teenage girls and that Facebook did not take enough actions to stop the spread of hateful content, lies, misinformation, and conspiracy theories within its social network. Haugen recently testified about her concerns to lawmakers on Capitol Hill and was interviewed by 60 Minutes. For many, Haugen’s leaked documents are the “smoking gun” that definitively proves our worst fears about how social media affects teens’ mental health.

Is Social Media as Bad for Teens as We Fear?

While there are legitimate concerns about the effects of social media (and other forms of screen time) on kids, teens, adults, and society as a whole, the reality is seldom as bad as the headlines, and our fears would have us believe. For instance, Facebook’s internal documents leaked by Haugen are not the unequivocal slam-dunk that proves Instagram is harmful to teens.

As psychologist and expert on the effects of media Chris Ferguson notes, Haugen’s findings have some serious limitations. For example, one of the studies only involved 25 participants. Another study was a survey that included leading questions such as, “How often do you see posts on Instagram that make you feel worse about your body?” The reported figure that “30% of teen girls felt Instagram made them feel worse about their bodies” was based upon a subset of 150 teen girls out of several thousand who already reported having concerns about their body image.

Importantly, there is a difference between a teen’s perception of harm when answering survey questions and their responses to more objective measures of harm, such as those acquired through empirically validated checklists designed to assess well-being and mental health. As Candice Odgers, a psychologist who studies adolescence at The University of California at Irvine and Duke University has found, many teens report that screens are harmful when asked because they are under the impression that they are harmful. Somewhat paradoxically, perceptions that screens are harmful to kids and teens are perpetuated by scary headlines, which prove, in a way, that screens are causing harm because we are living in fear of screen harm.

The research findings cited in The Facebook Files lack the scientific rigor required for publication in peer-reviewed academic journals. This isn’t to say that Facebook isn’t sitting on internal studies with greater scientific rigor. It is just that we haven’t seen those in the Facebook documents that Haugen leaked.

What Researchers Find on the Effects of Screens

There are still many heated debates among researchers on how screens affect young people, especially how social media affects teens. That said, as in The Wizard of Oz when we pull back the curtain and take a closer look at the actual data, the findings are not nearly as scary as the headlines or our fears. It should be noted that it is incredibly difficult for researchers to separate the effects of social media from the effects of screens in general. With that caveat in mind, more rigorous and comprehensive studies generally do not find that screens, including social media, contribute to much of the variance in the well-being of young people (positively or negatively). When negative effects are found, they tend to be relatively small, which makes it difficult to determine whether the small effects observed are due to "noise" (i.e, unexplained variability within a data sample).

For instance, in a 2021 meta-analysis (study of studies) on the effects of screens on children and teens, Chris Ferguson and colleagues found “screen media plays little role in mental health concerns.” This includes social media. In a 2021 Common Sense Media and Hopelab report, researchers Vicky Rideout and colleagues found that young people "are far more likely to say that using social media makes them feel better rather than worse when they’re depressed, stressed, or anxious, and that rate has gone up substantially since 2018.” In a large 2021 study that used data gathered from 11,875 9-and-10-year-old children participating in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, researchers concluded, that "the small effect sizes observed suggest that increased screen time is unlikely to be directly harmful to 9-and-10-year-old children.” While this study was not focused on social media, it is noteworthy because of its size, scope, rigor, and findings.

Of course, a number of studies suggest that screens, including social media, are harmful to children and teens. However, most of these studies have numerous methodological limitations, and the negative effects found tend to be relatively small. Many studies finding an association between social media and well-being are correlational (e.g., it might be that depressed girls are more likely to use Instagram), use self-reported screen time as the measure of actual screen time (researchers have found that self-reported screen time is an inaccurate measure of actual screen time), and the studies were not pre-registered (studies that are pre-registered tend to find smaller effect sizes).

The Big “But”

Here’s where things get complicated: As parents, we think that all of this time spent on screens cannot be good for kids on a gut level. Certainly, for some kids and teens, their use of screens can become problematic. Such concerns seem particularly understandable when it comes to the effects of social media on teen girls. When one points to studies indicating that screens, and social media in particular, are not harmful, one will invariably think of instances in which a teen appeared to suffer because of their screen use. For example:

I know this girl who was a straight-A student until she got on Instagram. She got addicted to it, was posting selfies all the time, developed an eating disorder, started cutting herself, failed all of her classes, and is now in a residential treatment center! So, don’t tell me that screens aren’t harmful to teens!

We long for certainty in this complicated world. We have trouble seeing how two seemingly contradictory notions can both be true. Thus, it can be true that screens, including social media, do not have significant, long-lasting effects on well-being for most kids and teens. Yet, perhaps for a certain subset of kids or teens, screens or social media hits their Achilles’ heel. For instance, a girl who is depressed and living with body image issues who starts using Instagram regularly might become more depressed. However, her story is not the same story for most teen girls.

The Takeaway

Thanks to the avalanche of coverage of the Facebook Files, most of us will be more convinced than ever that social media, or screens in general, are bad for kids and teens. Importantly, for some young people (and adults), they probably are. That said, the best evidence that we have suggests that screens, including social media, do not significantly affect well-being in any meaningful, lasting way, positive or negative, for most kids and teens.

Given Facebook’s vast knowledge and resources, it would be amazing if they would be willing to partner with more outside academics to understand better how we can get the most out of our screens while minimizing their negative effects on vulnerable populations.

Find the podcast version of this post here.

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