No One Knows Exactly What Social Media Is Doing To Teens

In The Atlantic, writer Kaitlyn Tiffany published this story on the serious downturn in youth mental health and the complexities of discerning social media’s impact and role in the plunge: 

“Late last month, the U.S. surgeon general issued an advisory—a format reserved for public-health issues that demand the nation’s immediate attention. ‘Nearly every teenager in America uses social media,’ the report read, ‘and yet we do not have enough evidence to conclude that it is sufficiently safe for them.’ In response, the Biden administration announced a new interagency task force that has been given a year to come up with a slate of policy recommendations that will help ‘safeguard’ children online.

This may be a legislative problem for Big Tech, and it’s certainly a public-relations problem. Over the past several years, cigarettes have become the dominant metaphor in the discourse about social media: Everyone seems to think that these sites are dangerous and addictive, like cigarettes. Young people get hooked. At a congressional hearing on Facebook’s impact on teenagers in 2021, Senator Ed Markey tossed the comparison at Antigone Davis, a vice president and the global head of safety for Meta, Instagram’s parent company. ‘Facebook is just like Big Tobacco, pushing a product that they know is harmful to the health of young people, pushing it to them early,’ Markey, a Democrat, said. Now the metaphor is even more compelling, as it can also evoke the famous 1964 surgeon-general warning about the scientific evidence of cigarettes causing lung cancer.

But the two are obviously very different. As a previous surgeon general pointed out: Cigarettes kill people through deadly disease. Social media is being blamed for something just as alarming but far less direct: a sharp increase in teen depression and suicide attempts over the past decade and a half that has been labeled a ‘national state of emergency’ by the American Academy of Pediatrics and other prominent medical associations. The CDC’s latest trend report shows the percentage of high-school students who ‘experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness’ jumping from 28 percent in 2011 to 42 percent in 2021, and the numbers for girls and LGBTQ students are even worse (57 and 69 percent, respectively, in 2021). 

Understandably, social media has been one of the places that parents have looked for an explanation. Last year, a Pew Research Center study found that more than half of American parents are at least somewhat worried that social media could lead their teenagers to develop mental-health problems—28 percent were ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ worried. Teens themselves are worried, at least about one another. About a third of them told Pew that social media is mostly negative for people their age, compared with about a quarter who say the effect has been mostly positive—although only a tenth said social media is mostly bad for them personally.”

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