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What research actually says about social media and kids’ health

There is no clear scientific evidence that social media is causing mental health problems among young people. Still, public health officials are pushing for regulation.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy on Monday. order social media platforms to add warnings reminding parents and children that apps may not be safe, citing increasing rates of mental health problems among children and adolescents. This follows an advisory Murthy issued last year regarding the health threat of loneliness for Americans, in which he named social media as a potential driver of social isolation.

But the experts – of prominent psychologists to defenders of freedom of expression – have repeatedly challenged the idea that time on social media like TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat directly leads to poor mental health. The debate is nuanced, they say, and it is too early to make sweeping statements about children and social media.

Here’s what we know about children and teens, social media apps, and mental health.

Why it’s hard to get a straight answer

There is evidence that adverse mental health symptoms among children and adolescents have increased dramatically, beginning during the 2007 global financial crisis and skyrocketing at the beginning of the pandemic. But research into the role of social media has produced conflicting conclusions.

While many studies have found that social media use correlates with declines in well-beingmany others have found otherwise. One problem may be that terms like “social media use” and “mental health” have been defined broadly and inconsistently, according to analysis of existing studies. Whatever the reason, it is challenging for researchers to find causal relationships (i.e., A causes B) between social media and mental health without closely monitoring children’s behavior.

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That hasn’t stopped health organizations from issuing warnings, such as a 2011 statement of the Communications and Media Council of the American Academy of Pediatrics urging parents to be aware of “Facebook depression.” TO 2013 study suggested that such warnings were “premature”.


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To help answer the question: “How does social media affect children?” Researchers need more robust data.

In an opinion essay on Monday in the New York TimesMurthy also called on social media companies to share data and research on health effects so that independent experts can examine it. “While platforms claim they are making their products safer, Americans need more than words. We need proof,” she wrote.

Vulnerable children are more likely to have difficulties

Sometimes social media seems to increase anxiety and depression. Other times, it appears to boost well-being and connectedness, according to a 2022 study. analysis of 226 studies.

So when we ask whether social media is a community hub for LGBTQ+ youth or a rabbit hole of warped information, the answer may be “both.” The most important factors may be a teen’s existing vulnerabilities and what they’re actually doing on social media apps, said American Psychological Association chief scientific officer Mitchell Prinstein. has said.

Some studies have found that children and adolescents who already struggle with their mental or emotional health are more likely to Leave social media feeling anxious or depressed. It is difficult to determine whether social media is causing depressive symptoms. One study 2018 found that while time on social media did not correlate with depression, young women with depression tended to spend more time on the apps.

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It’s unclear why social media might affect mental health

Social media leaves some people feeling bad, some studies suggestbut scientists still don’t understand why.

David Yeager, a developmental psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, said some possible contenders are social comparison, where we compare our own life to another person’s. Or maybe it’s guilt, when we feel lazy or unproductive after spending time scrolling. Of course, disappointment and guilt are old feelings, but social media can trigger them, Yeager said.

Social media is not the first new technology to raise concerns. TO Newspaper clipping from 1882 shows an author stating that the telephone was “an aggravating circumstance of such a monstrous character that it deserved a public denunciation.” People in the 1920s They were worried that radio would stop people from socializing in person.

Instead of fighting over whether social media is good or bad, it’s more important to figure out how to minimize the harm of the negative elements of social media and maximize the benefit of the good ones, Yeager said.

“Our technology has changed, but human nature has not,” he said. “The things that drive us, compel us and trap us remain the same.”

Social Media Companies Design Products to Keep Us Scrolling

Like all businesses, social media companies exist to make money. That means creating experiences so that users continue browsing your apps and viewing ads.

One way to achieve this is by playing with our attention or emotions. Reports from the Washington Post have shown, for example, that Facebook’s algorithm at one point he weighed the angry reaction more strongly than a “like” because outrage tended to generate more participation.

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“Instead of scaring children and parents with half-truths, we should demand policies that force companies to end harmful business practices like surveillance advertising and manipulative design features,” said Evan Greer, director of the organization. digital rights nonprofit Fight for the Future. Surgeon General Murthy called for similar measures in his Times essay.

Why some people exaggerate (or minimize) risks and concerns

Most experts call for a measured approach to discussing the potential health impacts of social media, but not all. For example, social scientist Jonathan Haidt recently published “The Anxious Generation,” a book that attributes poor mental health among adolescents to social media. In it, Haidt asks parents to keep children away from apps before high school and from smartphones completely until age 16. Other researchers, including psychologist Candice Odgers of the University of California, Irvine, have said the book misinterpreted existing studies to fuel moral panic.

“This book is going to sell a lot of copies because Jonathan Haidt tells a terrifying story about child development that many parents are prepared to believe,” Odgers wrote in an essay for nature. Meanwhile, some of Haidt’s readers celebrated what felt like a direct recognition of a difficult problem.

Future research may address this controversial issue from new directions. An article published in Nature last month, for example, recommended that researchers consider how changes in behavior and cognition during adolescence could interact with social networks and put mental health at risk.

Taylor Lorenz contributed to this report.

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