Science of social media’s effect on mental health isn’t as clear cut as a warning label might suggest | CNN


When U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy pushed for a similar tobacco warning on social media last week, he called the youth mental health crisis an emergency that demanded action without waiting for “information.” perfect.”

Even among experts, doubts persist about the exact role social media plays in the mental health of children and adolescents. The authors of a large new review of research on social media and mental health say key information is still missing to know whether prevention programs and interventions will work.

In it study, published Monday in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics, researchers reviewed nearly 150 studies on the relationship between social media and adolescent mental health. They found a general link between anxiety and depression in teenagers and the time they spent on social media platforms, as well as a link between the types of activities and the content they interacted with. However, the level of impact varied enough to suggest that the findings should not be generalized to the population as a whole.

The researchers found that very few studies evaluated the relationship between social media use and adolescents experiencing mental health symptoms at clinical levels (where they sought health services or had an active diagnosis, for example), further clouding the findings.

There is a “real risk that we are incorrectly generalizing results from the general population to young people with mental health problems,” wrote the study’s authors, from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

“In a world increasingly saturated by digital technology, we cannot afford to design prevention programs, interventions and regulations without knowing that they work for everyone, especially those who are most vulnerable.”

Other analysis Existing research, published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in December, also highlighted key questions that remain to be answered.

“There is insufficient evidence to say that social media causes changes in adolescent health at a population level,” according to a news release from the independent organization about the report. And “despite many years of research, evidence clarifying precisely how social media influences health is limited.”

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While science suggests that there is a link between social media and mental health, there is often a lack of clarity about whether social media is influencing an individual’s mental health or whether an individual’s mental health is influencing their use of social media, Dr. Sandro said. Galea, president of an ad-hoc National Academies Committee author of the research analysis and dean of the Boston University School of Public Health.

Future research should focus on following trends over time (tracking the mental health of the same children before and after exposure to social media to see what effects they have) and delving into more specific measures that capture how social media is used. social media, he said.

For Murthy, the urgency of the youth mental health crisis is pervasive and there is enough evidence to act now. In a New York Times op-ed, Murthy advocated for a warning label that would “regularly remind parents and teens that social media has not been proven safe,” among other interventions.

Murthy cited two key reports in support of a warning label: a 2019 study that found teens who spent more time on social media faced a higher risk of anxiety and depression and a 2022 survey in which nearly half of Teens said social media makes them feel worse about their bodies.

“One of the most important lessons I learned in medical school was that in an emergency, you can’t afford to wait for perfect information. You evaluate the available facts, use your best judgment, and act quickly,” Murthy wrote in his rehearsal. “The mental health crisis among young people is an emergency, and social media has become a major factor.”

Many experts agree that the surgeon general is starting an important conversation and that the need for more information should not lead to passivity, but a social media warning label will require nuance in language and implementation. It will also require Congress to act to make it a reality.

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“The Surgeon General is identifying something he sees as a challenge to the public’s health and is thinking about ways to act to mitigate the challenge. Through that lens, I think he is doing exactly what a general surgeon should do,” Galea said. “It is not uncommon for public health measures to be carried out without complete or perfect data.”

The National Academies committee specifically recommended against banning social media. Despite potential harms (such as unhealthy social comparisons and distraction from other important healthy behaviors like sleeping, exercising, and studying), social media can also benefit young people by helping to foster connection with friends and family, and with supportive online communities.

But there is an important distinction between profits and security, Murthy said Friday. The newspapera New York Times podcast.

“It is important to consider the research question broadly. What we are trying to understand first is the answer to the question parents ask us: “Is social media safe from my children?” And if you ask researchers: ‘What does the data tell us about safety? Where is the data that tells us these platforms are safe? That information is not there. So there is no evidence of safety. There is increasing evidence of harm,” she said.

“There are certain benefits, but getting some benefits does not justify forcing children to suffer significant harm.”

Still, social media is not the same as cigarettes. Smoking has a much stronger and more direct link to negative health effects, and quitting smoking is not the end goal of social media.

Instead, a warning label on social media should be more like those on bicycles and motor vehicles, said Pamela Wisniewski, an associate professor of human-computer interaction at Vanderbilt University, whose research has focused on the relationship between social networks, privacy and online security. for teenagers.

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“The key is to focus on solutions that empower young people and provide them with options and opportunities to maximize the benefits of social media use, while minimizing the risks, rather than adopting restrictive and surveillance-based approaches that are deeply rooted in fear,” he said. . The goal should be to ensure proper use, not just focus on risks and harms.

There is an expectation that products children interact with will be tested for safety, and a warning label on social media could send a clear message that there are “many safety gaps,” said Dr. Jenny Radesky, co-medical director of the American Academy of Pediatrics Center of Excellence in Social Networks and Youth Mental Health.

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“We hope that infant formula will be tested for bacteria, toys will be tested for lead paint, and there will be safety rules for everything from cribs to cars. These safety barriers that prioritize the well-being of children in digital products do not exist in the United States,” she stated.

Still, warning labels are brief and nuances can get lost in the “noise of the Internet,” Radesky said. “Family conversations to support healthy media use take a lot of time and need to be repeated over and over again.”

For the surgeon general, a warning label is part of a holistic strategy to reduce the risks that social media poses to young people in the US. Systematic design changes by the platforms and legislation to support those changes continue being the priority.

“To be clear, a warning label, alone, would not make social media safe for young people,” he wrote. “These damages are not a lack of willpower and parenthood; “They are the consequence of unleashing powerful technology without adequate security, transparency or accountability measures.”

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