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We’re Running a Risky Cognitive Experiment on Our Own Kids

Social media promised connection but has bred a crisis of isolation in youth.

Key points

  • Social media is arguably a risky, real-time experiment on children's mental, emotional and physical health.
  • Levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and mistrust are rising drastically among young people.
  • Social media and screen time are displacing outdoor time and undermining the experience of belonging.
Katerina Holmes / Pexels
Our society needs a fundamental rethink about the role of screen time and social media in our children's lives.
Katerina Holmes / Pexels

Imagine a new health supplement comes onto the market promising more energy, inspiration, and even a sense of connection to other people. It’s approved for use among kids and teens, and, in just a few years, the supplement goes from being a niche fad among children in privileged places to an undisputed global phenomenon.

Soon, it’s almost ubiquitous. In rich and poor countries alike, children are taking this new "magic" nutrient, and, in many cases, they’re taking it all day every day.

But early observations suggest that the new supplement might be impacting kids’ and teens’ attention spans, altering their emotional responses, and even affecting their social interactions and learning abilities. Global surveys show that children across countries are more impulsive, restless, less focused, and increasingly emotionally distressed. These trends correspond almost exactly to the adoption of the new supplement.

I know—this sounds like a dystopian scenario that responsible companies and government regulators would never allow to happen in real life. But I believe it’s an apt illustration of what’s happening right now with respect to screen time and social media.

Children’s screen time isn’t just a questionable impact of the digital revolution—it’s one of the most consequential long-term issues facing humankind. We’re running an impossibly risky, real-time experiment on the mental, emotional, and physical health of humanity’s future.

Anxiety, Depression, and Loneliness are Up in Youth

As the psychologist Jean Twenge meticulously documents in her 2023 book Generations, about half of U.S. teens used social media every day in 2009. By 2022, the number of daily users increased to 95 percent—and according to polling from Pew, about a third report using it “constantly.” The numbers are similar in other regions, including my home country of Canada and other industrialized countries. And the numbers aren’t far off on a global basis.

Since the widespread adoption of social media and ubiquitous screen time among young people just over a decade ago, levels of reported anxiety, depression, and loneliness have all increased substantially. This fact is reflected not only in self-reported data but also in emergency room visits for inflicted self-harm, suicide attempts, and suicides. "Every indicator of mental health and psychological well-being has become more negative among teens and young adults since 2012," Twenge warns.

Can so many troubling trends really be attributed to rising tech usage? I argue the answer is yes, and that there’s now convincing evidence of causation.

Between 2004 and 2006, Facebook was introduced to society first on college campuses—but not all campuses introduced the pioneering platform at the same time. The phased rollout created a useful research opportunity: mental health data from the campuses that did not yet have Facebook could be used as a control variable to assess the impacts of social media.

A recent study led by MIT's Alexey Makarin did just this, examining data from more than 350,000 student responses across more than 300 colleges, comparing colleges that had Facebook with those that did not.

Controlling for other factors, his team found that the rollout of Facebook caused about 2 percent of college students to become clinically depressed. And this was before the introduction of features like the News Feed or Like button—let alone platforms like TikTok, which likely have a far greater capacity to hijack the brain’s reward systems.

Beyond social media, we’re only just beginning to understand the complex consequences of screen time writ large on developing brains.

Professor Michael Rich of Harvard Medical School, who is the director and founder of the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital, argues that the growing human brain is constantly engaged in building neural connections while pruning away less-used connections. Screen time, he argues, provides “impoverished” stimulation of the developing brain relative to real-life interaction. Young people thrive on a diverse menu of experiences—including time outdoors, time interacting face-to-face with others, and time to let the mind simply wander. “Boredom is the space in which creativity and imagination happen,” Rich explains.

I come to this issue as a researcher and advocate on issues of social isolation and belonging. While ubiquitous connection through social media and digital devices promised an unprecedented increase in human connectedness, research has demonstrated that levels of loneliness and feelings of alienation are rising drastically among young people.

In my own research, I’ve found that the experience of belonging requires a feeling of connection to the physical places we call home as well as experiences of common meaning, mission, and trust. And—according to this broader conception—social media and screen time are undermining the experience of belonging.

Combatting Envy, Jealousy, and Mistrust

It’s clear that devices are keeping kids from time outdoors and face-to-face time with friends. But it’s also clear that social media usage is contributing to a decline in trust.

A 2022 paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that scrolling social media feeds is more likely to provoke feelings of envy, jealousy, and judgement—rather than sympathy or joy—for the good fortune of others. The distance and relative anonymity of online life make people less likely to feel empathy than in face-to-face situations—a factor leading to high rates of mistrust of other people and institutions, especially among young people.

The thought experiment about the ubiquitous supplement I offered you in the opening words of this post isn’t dystopian science fiction. It’s an analogy to what we’re facing now. The question is: What do we do about it?

Part of the answer comes down to what we can do as families and individuals. The Cambridge University psychologist Amy Orben offers a useful metaphor for parents in particular. Social media, she says, is “like the ocean.” That’s to say: Before parents let their kids swim in open water, they make sure the child is well trained and well equipped—with swimming lessons, safety vests, and a whole lot of supervision. The nonprofit Digital Wellness Lab offers a range of free guides for families to cultivate these kinds of skills.

But we can’t ultimately put the onus on young people—or even on their parents—to solve this problem. While it’s easy to tell kids to go play outside or read a book, these are systemic issues regarding the structure of our economy and society.

The European Union has proposed regulations to hold social media companies accountable for harms and ensure transparency in the algorithms they use. In the U.S., a bipartisan group of 42 state attorneys general has filed lawsuits against Facebook’s parent company, Meta, alleging that features of its networks are addictive and target young people.

The recent high-profile U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory on loneliness and isolation offers a series of recommendations for social media and technology companies, including guidelines to avoid “design features and algorithms that drive division, polarization, interpersonal conflict, and contribute to unhealthy perceptions of one’s self and one’s relationships.”

These are important steps. But we need to go further. If big tech companies truly want to boost connectedness and community, then it’s important to prioritize these values above the profit motive. Ultimately, this may mean that they need to fundamentally change their business model.

If a new drug were having these kinds of impacts on our kids, I have no doubt that millions of people would be out in the streets demanding an outright ban. The fact is that social media is now so ubiquitous and so central to young people’s lives that it’s hard to imagine substantial change.

But, right now, we have to imagine and enact change. Our future depends on it.

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