- Many people are blaming social media for a February CDC report on teenagers' poor mental health.
- In reality, studies show mixed findings and vary in quality. There is no scientific consensus on how social media affects mental health.
- Trying to restrict young people's social media usage may backfire and teach kids and teenagers the wrong lesson.
So much commentary has emerged about American teenagers’ mental health since the incredibly bleak CDC report was released in February. A lot of people believe social media usage is to blame for these recent trends, especially for teen girls. But psychologists, particularly developmental and clinical psychologists who work with adolescents, are not uniformly backing the “social media hypothesis.”
Here's why I remain skeptical that social media use is responsible for rising distress.
- Studies show conflicting results. Some researchers find links between social media use and well-being, and others do not, or find mixed results. Some developmental psychologists go as far as to suggest that social media might even have positive effects on well-being.
- Studies vary in quality. Some folks claim that if there are 30 studies published on a topic, and 17 of them (i.e., a majority) report a correlation, then we can be confident that this correlation exists. I don’t buy this. What if those 17 used poor methods while the other 13 used stronger methods? As we learned before, people are not accurate in reporting how much time they spend on various activities, and researchers recommend objective measures for app usage. Let’s remember: quality over quantity. Even hundreds of crappy studies shouldn’t outweigh a handful of good ones.
- “Who’s on first? What’s on second?” Even if there is a link between social media use and mental health, it’s not clear which precedes the other. It’s kind of a cliché to say, “correlation doesn’t equal causation.” But what do we really mean by that? Does anyone really think that depression causes increased social media use? Well, that may not be such a crazy idea after all. Some psychologists suggest that teenagers turn to social media in order to cope with negative emotions. We saw this during the COVID lockdowns, when teens were physically isolated but were still craving social connection. Some longitudinal studies show that when teenagers’ depression gets worse, that predicts using social media more, but not the other way around.
- There’s a missing cognitive link. We still don’t know what exactly about social media would make people feel distressed. Is it social comparison? Sedentary lifestyle? Sleep disruption? Physical isolation? There’s no consensus on this. And simply pointing to generic “screen time” doesn’t help clarify things.
- There is no clinical significance. Of the studies showing a link between social media use and mental health, they do not suggest an increased risk for mental illness (e.g., bipolar disorder). This is an important distinction. Just because someone feels upset doesn’t mean they have a mental health condition. Researchers suggest that digital technologies are “unlikely to be of clinical or practical significance.”
- Social media is evolving. Does anyone really think that Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, LinkedIn, and Reddit all have the same social or psychological properties? Perhaps there was a fleeting moment in recent history when people on social media typically encountered photos of their friends looking unrealistically awesome or beautiful, which caused some kind of negative social comparison that was especially detrimental in teenagers. But this is no longer the norm. On most social media platforms, masses of people are consuming content that is generated by a small group of creators. Plus, most teenagers don’t even use Facebook anymore, which is the platform that has been most extensively researched. And weren’t teenagers in the early 2010s most strongly influenced by Tumblr culture? Social media apps are not a monolith.
- We’ve been on this path for a long time. In North America, rising depression and distress have been going up for 80 years. This is something that even researchers who blame social media as a causal factor (like Jean Twenge) have acknowledged. Why weren’t people in the 1980s or '90s asking why adolescent depression was at an all-time high? This isn’t new. And it’s going to keep getting worse in the absence of major cultural adjustments. We aren’t a mentally healthy society, and we haven’t been for a very long time.
There Is No Consensus Here
Among scientists who study adolescent mental health, most are not concerned about social media use. A few of them are concerned, and they should be taken seriously. But it’s important to keep in mind when a passionate advocate like Jon Haidt openly admits that he is in a minority of scholars with this viewpoint. That’s very important context for this discussion, and one of the reasons why I respect Haidt as a scholar.
We can have conversations about common-sense reforms to social media apps for the betterment of society. That’s unobjectionable. But we should refrain from making strong claims or prescriptions in the absence of strong evidence. For example, if one recommends that we restrict young people’s digital technology usage until they pass through puberty, is there any evidence to suggest that this will have a positive effect on their well-being? I remain skeptical.
Let's Not Make Things Worse
In the words of Greg Lukianoff, "We're teaching young people the mental habits of anxious and depressed people." If we try to restrict young people's social media use, we’re making this exact error. We’re imparting to adolescents the lesson that they’re incapable of developing good mental health without adult intervention. Seems like a really bad idea to me. We should be teaching them resilience.
I believe that poor mental health in teenagers stems from broader societal problems that must be addressed with more creative solutions designed to maximize psychological need fulfillment and self-determination. If we create environments and communities in which teens can flourish, then I don’t see social media having detrimental effects on a mass scale.
Cauberghe, V., Van Wesenbeeck, I., De Jans, S., Hudders, L., & Ponnet, K. (2021). How adolescents use social media to cope with feelings of loneliness and anxiety during COVID-19 lockdown. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 24(4), 250-257.
Heffer, T., Good, M., Daly, O., MacDonell, E., & Willoughby, T. (2019). The longitudinal association between social-media use and depressive symptoms among adolescents and young adults: An empirical reply to Twenge et al. (2018). Clinical Psychological Science, 7(3), 462-470.
Odgers, C. L., & Jensen, M. R. (2020). Annual research review: Adolescent mental health in the digital age: Facts, fears, and future directions. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 61(3), 336-348.