- New evidence connects the rise of social media to the decline in mental health among young people.
- Social media may exert both direct and indirect effects on consumers.
- When it comes to social media, both its processes and its contents appear to be problematic.
Young people in the US are not doing well. While traditional health threats such as drunken driving, teenage pregnancy, and smoking have declined, a new menace has appeared: poor mental health. So much so that in the fall of 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children's Hospital Association all declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health.
What forces have conspired to produce these sharp mental health declines? Researchers are looking at several possibilities. Global anomie may be in play. Young people look to the future with dread, for understandable reasons: Climate change; global instability; financial woes; terrorism; grotesque gun violence; and now the potential threat of out-of-control AI. The Covid-19 pandemic did not help, either, increasing young people’s isolation, stress, and fear.
Some observers have also been pointing a finger at contemporary parenting practices, which may be producing more psychologically fragile offspring. However, it is important to understand that parents are by and large conduits of culture. They are charged with transmitting cultural values, mores, and tools to their children. Within a broad range of normal competency, parents are quite interchangeable in terms of their contribution to child psychological health and development. Most of us would come out the same if we were raised by our parents’ neighbors.
Thus, when we talk about parents, we talk about culture. Contemporary American culture is hyper-competitive, flailing, fractured, violent, and awash in dread. New data suggest that US parents are just as anxious and depressed as their children. Parenting practices reflect this cultural reality, having become both anxiety-based and safety-focused. This is problematic because an anxious focus on safety communicates to children that the world is dangerous, that the child is fragile, and that their fragility is a central feature of their identity. As I’ve written here before, teaching children that the world is dangerous is not helpful to them. Defining oneself by one’s vulnerabilities amounts to defining down one's potential.
Recently, data have been converging upon another primary suspect: the advance of cellphones and social media. Research shows that the rise in mental health problems coincided closely with the rise and market penetration of social media and cellphones. Granted, the new technology has some positive uses and effects. Yet it also appears to have a dark side, particularly for young people who use it a lot.
For one, it now appears that social media has failed to fulfill much of its initial promise. Social media was supposed to bring new voices into the conversation. Instead, it had the effect of siloing all the voices into separate, narrow echo chambers. Instead of a communal conversation with many voices, we now have many insular conversations, each in one voice. This has the effect of weakening societal bonds. There’s no longer the thing we all watch, or experience, or agree on. Because social media gathers together likeminded people, we are all in effect talking to ourselves on it. Social media was also supposed to connect people, yet people who spend much time on it feel more, not less lonely.
Both the contents and the processes of social media may contribute to its adverse impact. Content-wise, social media present a skewed and distorted picture of world. Content is designed to increase viewing, so it gives consumers more of what they’re likely to watch, not more of what they need, or what is important or good. Moreover, much of the content is garbage, yet there’s no curation for truth value on social media, and it’s difficult to differentiate reliable from unreliable information. Fake, false, or malevolent content is everywhere; but the media does not give young people the tools to separate truth from lie, fact from fiction, trivial from profound, and, increasingly, bot from human.
In a sense, social media content is both too filtered and not filtered enough. Too filtered because the algorithms feed you only stuff you’re likely to watch. Not filtered enough because young people have access to stuff that would traditionally be monitored and curated by parents, teachers, and other socializing agents, or show up gradually later in development. Social media info comes at children early and hard. It’s like handing a race car to a 12-year-old. There’s danger to it.
Process-wise, social media presents a dosing problem. Social media is incessant; a 24/7 nonstop stream of stimulation, compelling bits of data, visuals, and sounds, always new, always accessible. This bounty of choices conceals a darker truth: Social media provides an illusion of freedom by giving you many little choices, while at the same time usurping your more important choice: whether or not to be on social media. You're free to scroll down, tweet, swipe left, and click. But, increasingly, what you're not free to do is live without social media.
Process-wise, social media is like the food industry in the US. The food industry is motivated to get us to buy more product, not to protect or improve our health. To that end, it has hacked our evolved preferences. We evolved to like sweetness because it was a proxy of good nutrition, ripe fruits and veggies. We evolved to overeat because that’s adaptive in times of scarcity. The food industry took the sweetness off the nutritious stuff, tacked it onto bad stuff, and amped up production, turning the old scarcity into over-abundance. So we eat the bad stuff, and too much of it.
Likewise, social media is motivated to get you to use it more, not to educate or help you thrive. Thus, It has hacked our innate preference for novelty and our knack for social comparison—both of which evolved because they were useful--to create an environment of constant novelty and impossible social comparison. Novel events used to occur periodically. On social media they occur constantly. We used to compare ourselves to the most beautiful person in the proximal environment of our tribe. On social media we compare ourselves to the most beautiful person in the world. No wonder we feel perpetually distracted, inadequate, and experience FOMO.
If I throw you into the river before you’ve learned how to swim, you will most likely drown. But that’s not your fault. It’s mine, for placing you in an environment with which you are unequipped to cope. Likewise, you cannot have an environment where information is endlessly available, novel, and tailored to individual taste and expect individuals to consume responsibly. Increasingly, our self-systems are ill-equipped to deal with the technological environments we’ve created. No wonder young people are stressed.
In its persistent and effective grab at our time and attention, social media also takes time away from other important things. For one, it takes time away from sleep. Deficient sleep, in turn, is linked causally to lower mood and lower levels of overall functioning. Moreover, social media takes time away from productive learning, including learning social skills.
In this sense, social media is like porn. Contemporary internet porn gives us the two things that we evolved to crave: variety and access, but it is mostly masturbatory and lacks the ‘psychological nutrients’ of living human contact. Raised on porn, you will be quite lost inside a live, human sexual encounter. Social media gives kids a similar experience—boundless novelty and access without the psychological nutrients of--and necessary skills for--live human contact. No wonder relationships flounder, and loneliness increases
The impact of social media’s onslaught may be amplified by the fact that it has coincided with the declining age of puberty. Over the last century, the age of puberty has dropped markedly. When puberty hits, the brain becomes acutely attuned to social and status cues. The psychological maturity required to solve questions of identity and worth tends to lag behind the physical development. Social media floods youngsters with information related to identity and status before their capacity to process such issues has developed, leaving them overwhelmed.
What can be done to manage social media? By way of analogy, consider how we tackle smoking: We limit access and availability by limiting where (and to whom) tobacco can be advertised, sold, and used. We raise the cost. We educate the public about the dangers of tobacco, and hold tobacco companies accountable in court for deceptive practices. We attack the cool factor of smoking by showing non-smoking role models in the media. We develop programs and tools to help individuals quit.
A similar multi-level effort will be needed for managing the negative effects of social media. There will have to be regulations on who can access what. There will have to be education about the risks of over-use. There will have to be rules limiting use in certain environments. We already see places forbidding cellphones—from schools to comedy shows, etc. There will have to be required classes on social media literacy. Using your phone in polite company will need to be made passé, like spitting.
Once the macro environment is structured to be supportive and the people are educated, individual parents and children will have a chance to enforce and acquire healthy use habits, thus maximizing the benefits and minimizing the damages of social media.