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Schools Sue Social Media Over Mental Health: Will It Help?

Researchers, youth, and social media companies must work together.

Key points

  • More schools are joining lawsuits against social media companies, citing the rise in mental health needs for adolescents.
  • Social media seems to be a source of both harm and benefit to healthy social and emotional development.
  • Companies need to be more transparent and open their doors to work with academic researchers.
Vanessa Loring/Pexels
Vanessa Loring/Pexels

More than 40 schools in the United States have initiated lawsuits against social media companies—TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat—citing their contributions to the mental health crisis facing our youth. The school districts say they need to hire more mental health staff to support the rising needs and believe that social media companies are to blame.

From a mental health perspective, the evidence is definitely not conclusive. The relationship between mental health and social media use is complicated, and the field is divided.

The Bad

Starting with the bad, several studies have found associations between social media use and the onset or worsening of depression, the leading cause of mental illness among youth. Other studies have found associations with loneliness, sleep problems, self-harm, body dysphoria, and disordered eating. The list goes on.

Some argue that social media use is too engaging for developing adolescent brains, so much so that it interferes with developmentally important healthy offline social experiences, increases tendencies for unhealthy social comparison and exposes youth to excessive risky or harmful content. These issues have become even more pronounced since the COVID-19 pandemic drove greater virtual connectivity.

The Good

Now the good: Much research shows that social media use can benefit youth by enriching relationships, enhancing communication, strengthening social interactions, and propagating mental health advocacy without judgment or stigmatization. Youths use social media to express themselves creatively, connect with others, and feel less alone. Most importantly, perhaps, social media offers unprecedented access to global communities that can provide social support and nurture a sense of belonging and self-esteem that is vital to healthy adolescent development, especially for youth who may not have access to supportive resources and people.

Social media seems to be a source of both harm and benefit to healthy social and emotional development. Although I am not able to weigh in on the validity of the lawsuits, I am a parent, psychiatrist, and researcher, and I am confident that there is an urgent need to understand social media use and its impact on adolescent well-being. I believe that social media companies have a responsibility to ensure that their platforms are as safe as possible and that these lawsuits have sparked much-needed conversation and debate that will hopefully lead to better policies to support the safety of young people. But substantial change will only happen when we all work together to understand what works well and what needs to be adjusted or improved.

Social media companies have access to incredibly valuable data about each one of their users. And although much of this information is available for download (in the settings section), the process is cumbersome and clunky. It can be challenging for researchers who are trying to figure out exactly how social media impacts well-being to do our best work. Social media companies need to be more transparent and open their doors to work with academic researchers, like me, who are experts in healthy and unhealthy adolescent development. In doing so, and only by working together, we can truly unpack the risks and benefits, the pros and cons, and how to enhance the good and minimize risks for everyone.

More from Michael L. Birnbaum M.D.
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