What We Really Know About How Social Media Affects Adolescent Mental Health

According to internal Facebook documents published in the Wall Street Journal, Instagram makes teenage girls feel even worse about their bodies. (Facebook owns Instagram.) The app is full of photos of incredibly thin and handsome people, so keep track of; and we have worried for years about the dangers of young people’s access to digital devices. But does Insta really rot the brains of children? The truth is probably more complex, and the data is definitely incomplete.

I’m not saying this to protect Facebook (which is evil), but to help those of us trying to figure out what to do with the social media our kids use.

First, Facebook statistics

The statistics in the leaked Facebook presentations are pretty killer: a third of teenage girls feel worse about their bodies after watching Instagram, and 6% of suicidal teens in the US say their feelings started on the app. But as Anya Kamenets points out at NPR , these numbers are not necessarily representative of all adolescents.

The question of whether Insta makes teenage girls feel worse about their bodies was only asked by teenage girls who previously stated that they have problems with body image. (If that’s the case, perhaps surprisingly, two-thirds don’t think Insta makes them feel worse.) And the suicide rate comes from a tiny sample of teens; only 16 people on Earth said they can track suicidal thoughts by the time they spend on Instagram, and only a few of them count for the US data. Any number of teen suicides is too many, but does Instagram drive kids to suicide? What would life be like for these 16 teens in a world without social media? We don’t really have the answers.

One of the most frustrating things about this line of research is that it is currently impossible to get accurate and comprehensive answers to our important questions. Facebook keeps its data hard. Third-party researchers can’t come close to the amount of detail that Facebook itself can get, so they end up using less accurate and less complete social media interventions. Facebook has all the data a researcher might need, but they decide for themselves what questions to ask about this and whether to publish the results.

What other studies are saying

Delving deeper into other research, what can we learn about the impact of social media on adolescent mental health? It turns out not a lot. One interesting article is a review published in 2020 that reviews articles published in the previous few years. The authors do not find one-way streets where social media tells teens how to feel. In contrast, adolescents have complex feelings and difficult lives, and social media is only part of the landscape.

It seems true that social media can exacerbate mental health problems or make children susceptible to bullying. But it can also be a positive force: Teens with mental health problems use social media to try to understand what’s going on and find ways to deal with their symptoms.

Social media is also part of the social support networks of many people (including adolescents). They use their phones and apps to stay in touch with family and friends and find people with common interests.

A 2018 Pew study found that 24% of teens said social media had a negative impact on their lives, but 31% believed the effect was generally positive. (Others thought it was neither positive nor negative in the end.) The same Facebook docs that reported that Insta makes teens feel worse actually found more positive than negative responses. For example, 19% of teens in the US said Insta makes them feel “somewhat” or “much” worse about their mental health, and 41% said it makes them feel somewhat or much better.

What can we do with this information?

There is a small ray of hope in the 2020 review. After going through what is known about teens and social media, and the many constraints in how we study it, the authors note that since teens’ online and offline experiences shape their lives, “the good news for parents and policymakers is that existing evidence-based interventions and strategies may look different but will still be effective in supporting youth in the digital age. ”

Meanwhile, we have a lot more questions to answer if we want to know what Instagram (or TikTok, or any other social network) is doing to kids’ minds. It will probably matter who uses which network, how, what they do, and what people they connect with. Context matters and offline factors matter. And we just don’t have enough data to really describe what’s going on.

Again, I am not protecting Facebook or Insta. They have clearly created a complex monster that they must – but claim they cannot – control. But from a mental health perspective, should we stop our children from using social media? I do not consider this to be the only conclusion.

I went to school on the days when kids had to bully each other personally, and our photoshopped images were taken from copies of Seventeen magazine that we passed in the classroom and criticized with Sharpies. We have developed so many body imaging and mental health problems without any help from any digital social media at all.

The teenager who throws his phone into the sea will still have feelings and still have to find his own way to fit into the world. It may be helpful to think about how we can positively impact the social lives of our children, not just their use of social media.


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