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February 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 5

Let’s Stop Shaming Teens About Social Media Use

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We’ve been told that social media is terrible for teens’ mental health, but science may not support that claim.

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Social-emotional learning
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Credit: Marina Demidiuk / SHUTTERSTOCK
In May 2023, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory about social media and teen mental health. The media headlines after were daunting for teenagers and their teachers and parents. ABC News cautioned that “social media could have a ‘profound risk’ on kids and teens” (Caturano, 2023), and an NBC article stated that the Surgeon General warns that “social media use is a main contributor to depression, anxiety, and other problems in the nation’s teenagers” (Edwards & Jackson, 2023). 
The trouble with all this? Despite these dire warnings, study after study has failed to uncover robust evidence that social media harms adolescents’ mental health. The Surgeon General acknowledged the lack of evidence in the 2023 advisory, stating that “robust independent safety analyses on the impact of social media on youth have not yet been conducted”—but that isn’t what policy­makers, teachers, and parents are hearing. Instead, they hear that social media is the cause of the youth mental health crisis, and that we should be scared when young people use it.  
There are many reasons not to like social media, and there is no doubt that we are in a mental health crisis. But to date, we do not have reliable evidence that social media is to blame. We say this having studied mental health for over 20 years while tracking children and adolescents on their devices. We are not alone in finding few reliable connections between social media use and well-being. A large meta-analysis of 226 studies in 2022 involving 275,728 participants led by Jeffrey Hancock estimated the overall association between social media and well-being as indistinguishable from zero. In other words, there was no evidence that an overall association existed.  
While some studies find small correlations between social media and depression, they are almost all from studies relying on people to report how much they used social media in the past and their past well-being. People are incredibly bad at remembering these kinds of details, and there is no way with this kind of study to sort out cause from effect. In fact, when adolescents are followed over time, results suggest that we may be drawing causal arrows in the wrong direction! For example, in 2019, researchers analyzed the responses of 1,700 adolescents who were surveyed annually for two or six years and found that adolescent girls who were depressed used more social media in the future, but girls who were heavier social media users did not necessarily go on to be depressed (Heffer et al., 2019). No ­associations between social media use and depression were found among boys.  
Perhaps the most convincing evidence comes from a recent large-scale study of over 8,000 twins, which showed that genetic factors that could be measured at birth (polygenic risk scores) accounted for all the observed associations between social media use and mental health symptoms in people they had followed over 20 years (Ayorech et al., 2023). This is to say that when controlling for factors you are literally born with (your genetics), any small linkages found between social media use and mental health disappears. 
The most recent rush to blame social media for youth mental health struggles does cite some experimental and quasi-experimental studies. But when we reviewed this research, we were disappointed to learn that the participants were often middle-aged women recruited online or small samples of college students who were asked to give up social media and then report how they feel (Odgers & Jensen, 2020). It is not surprising, or that interesting, that participants reported feeling better after they were asked to give up something that they have been told is bad for them.  

Despite these dire warnings, study after study has failed to uncover robust evidence that social media harms adolescents’ mental health.

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A recent quasi-experimental study by Luca Braghieri and colleagues (2022) looking at the timing of the expansion of Facebook starting in 2004 is the latest to claim social media causes poor mental health. The authors report worse mental health among students at colleges that gained access to Facebook earlier. Unfortunately, students in colleges where Facebook was first introduced had worse mental health to begin with, which casts doubt on how to interpret these findings. Perhaps more importantly, it is not clear what the rollout of Facebook 20 years ago tells us about teens on TikTok today.  
What we do know is that young people and their parents now believe the story that social media is bad for them. In a study led by Madeline George that followed more than 2,000 adolescents in North Carolina, over 90 percent reported that they believed their digital technology was negatively impacting their everyday lives. However, when we matched these reports with school administrative records, clinical assessments, and reported mental health symptoms, we did not find evidence of impairment. Hancock’s large meta-analysis also showed that when researchers frame social media as addictive (versus neutral), they are more likely to find negative associations. Similarly, in her laboratory-based study, Simone Lanette and colleagues (2018) reported that over 90 percent of parents and teens responded to open-ended questions about their phones using language that suggests feelings of addiction, defensiveness, and/or shame.  
More recently, Angela Yuson Lee has shown that the most harmful thing about social media with respect to mental health may be how much control, or agency, adolescents perceive themselves to have when interacting with it. In a series of clever experiments, her team showed that college students who held more positive mindsets about their social media use consistently experienced greater well-being than those with negative mindsets (Lee & Hancock, 2023).  
These findings underscore how the messages we tell parents, teachers, and youth matter. In some cases, the messaging and perceptions of use may have more of an impact on mental health than the use itself. ­Messages from the media telling teens that social media is harmful and the repetition of these messages by parents, teachers, and even pediatricians may be further damaging our already ­vulnerable adolescents. This ­messaging matters.

Focus on the Right Solutions

You may ask, what is the harm in taking “a safety first” approach to limiting teens’ access to social media or to teaching about social media dangers in our schools? Shouldn’t we act to protect students even if there is the slightest risk for harm?  
The issue with blaming social media for serious mental health problems is that we might miss the real dangers among adolescents, spending time and money on the wrong solutions while our schools and students suffer. We might also make things worse, since telling kids that social media is bad for them creates conflict and feelings of shame. For suffering children and teens, schools can be places to gain support they lack at home. Teachers have a valuable role to play in ­providing access to mental health support and positive developmental experiences. 
Educators are in an especially difficult position in responding to concerns over technology use. On the one hand, schools—often under pressure from the outside—must integrate educational technology platforms with designs that mimic or even interface directly with social media platforms and features. Many schools are working to engage students and parents on their social media platforms to efficiently disseminate information and build community. On the other hand, these same teachers and schools are faced with the relentless media messaging that social media is a threat to the well-being of their students and that student use should be restricted or banned. Reconciling these mixed messages is a nearly impossible task. 
Real concerns and challenges exist in the school context with the use of social media, including increased opportunities for cyberbullying and harassment. However, it is through many of these same channels that students seek out help and support. Many teens go online to seek out information about mental health, especially when they are struggling. In a nationally representative survey of 1,300 adolescents (Rideout & Fox, 2018), 90 percent of those with depressive symptoms reported going online for information about mental health, compared to 48 percent of those without symptoms. Online spaces allow teens to ask questions anonymously, without stigma. Social media is a space where students can get help when they are struggling—especially youth who are bullied at school; from marginalized backgrounds, including LGBTQ+ youth; or who don’t have parents and other adults in their lives to provide support (Lucero, 2017).

Simply banning or shutting off phones will not solve the problems facing educators and children today.

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Therefore, teachers, administrators, and students need help to allow students to explore online support and communication while ensuring they are safe. Educators can fight for better content moderation by companies and evidence-based interventions that target bullying and harassment in both online and offline spaces. And there is some promising news on this front. A recent meta-analysis of over 50 studies has shown that scientifically grounded programs for school-aged children can substantially reduce cyberbullying and victimization (Polanin et al., 2022). Further, small pilot studies show that the use of phones to provide social support has the potential to actually improve playground interactions for autistic children and their neurotypical peers (Escobedo et al., 2012). Teachers are often the best equipped to know what types of support might work in their own schools. But simply banning or shutting off phones will not solve the problems facing educators and children today. More broadly, fear-based policies that lack nuance may even limit the very creativity our teachers and schools need to develop their own solutions.

Changing the Narrative

So, what can educators do? We agree with the Surgeon General about many of the changes suggested to make the online world a more supportive and productive place for children and adolescents. In fact, we have made many of these same recommendations ourselves in the recent report “Engaging, Safe, and Evidence Based: What Science Tells Us Adolescents Need When Online” (Odgers et al., 2022). We need to invest in improving online spaces the same way we ensure that schools support social-emotional development. These investments include ensuring that the online world and social media platforms protect the data of our children; building algorithms and protocols that restrict negative content; prioritizing children and their mental health over profits and clickbait; and integrating age-appropriate guardrails and supports. We need more rigorous research on how social media can impact mental health both positively and negatively.  
We also need to invest in mental health resources, as the ratio of school psychologists to students is currently one for every 1,127 students (National Association of School Psychologists, 2023), with the ratio of school counselors to students being a dismal 1 for every 408 students—nearly double the 250-to-1 ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association (2022). We also need to invest in addressing a wide variety of other underlying risk factors, such as the stress of school itself and the difficulty in obtaining admission to a competitive college—or even students’ anxiety about the future in the face of troubling economic and ecological realities (Heller-Sahlgren, 2018).  
Simply put, pointing a finger at unproven causes of mental disorder will not make the youth mental health crisis go away. Instead of rushing to implement restrictions on social media, consider teaching children that such platforms are tools over which they have control. Teach them self-efficacy, and self-regulation will often follow. Instead of scaring children about “strangers” and “predators,” teach them about problematic behavior, both in people they know in person and for those they may not know online. Instead of making the problem about a tool that provides access to information and data, teach children to critically examine their sources and turn information into knowledge. Misinformation and data illiteracy are some of the greatest threats to society today, and schools have a unique opportunity and responsibility to influence our future in this regard. Above all else, model the behavior we want to see in our children. Use your own phone and social media in responsible ways, think critically about your own media consumption, and engage with students and their devices thoughtfully and intentionally.

In some cases, the messaging and perceptions of social media use may have more of an impact on mental health than the use itself.

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Finally, just like in the offline world, strong communication is key to supporting students as they explore new spaces. Have a conversation with the young people in your classrooms about who they are interacting with online; what interests them; and what type of information, support, and experiences they seek when they spend time in online spaces and turn to social media feeds. Young people are early and enthusiastic adopters of new digital technologies, and simply restricting access is not going to work. Choose communication over conflict when it comes to managing devices. We say this not only as researchers, but also as college professors who are working through these issues in our own classrooms and as parents of teens and tweens who struggle with these issues every day in our own homes.  
A first step in supporting the young people in our classrooms with their digital technology and social media use is to question the narratives we are fed about these issues. If we continue to just accept the messages that we are hearing about social media, we risk driving a wedge between generations and restricting access to the larger set of supports for students who need that lifeline. More important, we will waste countless hours and dollars fighting to shield students from social media to prevent depression and silencing phones in our classrooms, instead of figuring out what is really driving this crisis—and solving it.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Do you have negative feelings toward teen social media use? Did this article change any of those perceptions?

➛ Do you talk to your students about social media or incorporate it into your teaching in any way? Why or why not?

References

American School Counselor Association. (2022). School counselor roles & ratios

Ayorech, Z., Baldwin, J. R., Pingault, J.-B., Rimfeld, K., & Plomin, R. (2023). Gene-environment correlations and genetic confounding underlying the association between media use and mental health. Scientific Reports, 13(1), 1030.  

Braghieri, L., Levy, R., & Makarin, A. (2022). Social media and mental health. American Economic Review, 112(11), 3660–3693.  

Caturano, S. (2023, May 23). Social media could have ‘profound risk; on kids and teens, U.S. surgeon general warns. ABC News.  

Edwards, E., & Jackson, H. (2023, May 23). Social media is driving teen mental health crisis, surgeon general warns. NBC News.  

Escobedo, L., Nguyen, D. H., Boyd, L., Hirano, S., Rangel, A., Garcia-Rosas, D., et al. (2012). MOSOCO: A mobile assistive tool to support children with autism practicing social skills in real-life situations. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems. 

George, M. J., Jensen, M. R., Russell, M. A., Gassman-Pines, A., Copeland, W. E., Hoyle, R. H., et al. (2020). Young adolescents’ digital technology use, perceived impairments, and well-being in a representative sample. The Journal of Pediatrics, 219, 180–187.  

Hancock, J., Liu, S. X., Luo, M., & Mieczkowski, H. (2022, March 9). Psychological well-being and social media use: A meta-analysis of associations between social media use and depression, anxiety, loneliness, eudaimonic, hedonic and social well-being. Anxiety, Loneliness, Eudaimonic, Hedonic and Social Well-Being. SSRN. 

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.  

Heller-Sahlgren, G. (2018). Smart but unhappy: Independent-school competition and the wellbeing-­efficiency trade-off in education. Economics of ­Education Review, 62, 66–81.  

Lanette, S., Chua, P. K., Hayes, G., & Mazmanian, M. (2018). How much is’ too much’? The role of a smartphone addiction narrative in individuals’ experience of use. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, 2(CSCW), 1–22. 

Lee, A. Y., & Hancock, J. (2023). Social media mindsets: A new approach to understanding social media use & psychological well-being. Stanford University, Department of Communication. 

Lucero, L. (2017). Safe spaces in online places: Social media and LGBTQ youth. Multicultural Education Review, 9(2), 117–128.  

National Association of School Psychologists. (2023). State shortages data dashboard. 

Odgers, C., Allen, N., Pfeifer, J., Dahl, R., Nesi, J., Schueller, S., et al. (2022). Engaging, safe, and evidence-based: What science tells us about how to promote positive development and decrease risk in online spaces. Natl Scientific Council on ­Adolescence.  

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.  

Office of the Surgeon General. (2023). Social media and youth mental health: The U.S. surgeon general’s advisory.  

Polanin, J. R., Espelage, D. L., Grotpeter, J. K., Ingram, K., Michaelson, L., Spinney, E., et al. (2022). A systematic review and meta-analysis of interventions to decrease cyberbullying perpetration and victimization. Prevention Science, 23(3), 439–454.  

Rideout, V. & Fox, S. (2018). Digital health practices, social media use, and mental well-being among teens and young adults in the U.S.” Articles, Abstracts, and Reports, 1093. 

Candice L. Odgers is a professor of psychology and an associate dean for research at the University of California, Irvine. With Gillian R. Hayes, she runs the Jacobs Foundation CERES global network, headquartered at UC Irvine, which focuses on evidence-based open science to understand the impacts of technologies on developing minds.

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