A quick glance at recent headlines would have any parent reeling with worry about their children’s social media use. Perhaps the most glaring example was the question in The Atlantic in 2017: “Are smartphones ruining a generation?” Responses to that article were fast and furious, ranging from “Yes, they are,” to “No, they’re not,” to “Yes they are, but not the generation you’re thinking of.”
New research published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science adds ammunition to the chorus of skeptical voices arguing that social media isn't as big a contributor to mental health concerns as we imagine. Using a more rigorous methodology that comes closer to allowing for inferences about cause and effect, these authors argue that we’ve got it backward. Social media use doesn’t cause depression in adolescents. Instead, it seems more likely that when teenagers (or at least teenage girls) get depressed, they spend more time on social media.
First, some context. Much of the concern about young people’s engagement with social media stems from arguments made by psychologist Jean Twenge and colleagues in a recently published paper in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. In that study, the authors documented evidence for what many took to be an alarming increase in depression and suicidality among young people. Though the study did not explicitly test a causal link between social media use and depression, Twenge strongly suggested that digital media use was behind this trend. Twenge’s claim was perhaps not surprising, given that she is the author of the book iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us.
But a number of critics rushed to point out that the key study in question did not provide compelling evidence that social media use is behind the increase in young people’s rates of depression. In essence, the study only demonstrated that digital media increased and rates of depression increased, but not that one trend was responsible for the other.
Additionally, social media use accounted for only a tiny percentage of the variability in depressive symptoms. As one research psychologist interviewed by Quartz put it, “I have the data set they used open in front of me and I submit to you that, based on that same data set, eating potatoes has the exact same negative effect on depression [as social media use].”
Few studies on social media use have followed users over time. Instead, conclusions about the link between depression and social media use are generally based on the fact that groups who use social media more also show higher rates of depression. But myriad factors could account for those group differences — many of which may have nothing to do with social media.
The authors of the newly published researched addressed this limitation by using what’s called a longitudinal cross-lagged analysis. That’s a fancy way of saying that they followed adolescents and young adults over a number of years, assessing both depression and social media use multiple times. This allowed the authors to test the timing of any correlations between social media use and depression. In other words, it allowed them to address the “chicken or the egg” question: Which comes first, depression or increased social media use?
For young men and adolescent boys, the authors found no compelling evidence that social media use and depression were even associated. Given that earlier research suggested that social media is most damaging for the mental health of adolescent girls and young women, this result makes sense. But what was surprising was the finding that for adolescent girls, the data suggested that increases in depression drove increases in social media use — not the other way around. Symptoms of depression may cause adolescent girls to seek comfort or connection via social media, even if this coping strategy is unlikely to be effective.
This study was not without its limitations. In particular, it did not assess what the participants were doing on social media. This is important given that, particularly for young women, photo-focused activity may play a role in increasing body image concerns in addition to negative moods.
It’s important to remember that science is cumulative; its foundations grow over time. Scientific research is not a winner-take-all system where one study should prompt us to disregard every other bit of work done on a topic. But it’s fair to say that this new research should cause us all to step back and think more carefully about what’s really causing increases in depression among young people.