Is it fair to blame social media for teenage mental health?

“The 360” shows you different perspectives on the main stories and debates of the day.

What is up

Rates of depression and suicidal thoughts among American teenagers increased dramatically between 2011 and 2021 — especially among girls and boys who don’t identify as heterosexual — according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC report is the latest evidence of a severe adolescent mental health crisis in the United States that has gotten worse in the last decade. In the eyes of some psychologists and legislators, social media is to blame.

Today’s teenagers, with smartphones in their pockets, spend far more time online than any previous generation. Almost all say they use the Internet every day, and almost half use it “almost constantly,” according to a Pew survey taken last year. Most of that time is spent on social platforms such as YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram and, to a lesser extent, Facebook.

Last month, public schools in Seattle sued several major social media companies, accusing them of exploiting the “vulnerable brains of youth” for profit. Utah Governor Spencer Cox announced the plans present a similar process. Several members of Congress have pushed for legislation that would impose new guardrails on children’s use of social media, with some calling for a legal minimum age for users.

Why there is debate

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence, including academic research and the testimony of children themselves, that today’s youth are struggling with mental health. But the question is far from settled as far as social media is concerned.

Many experts make the case that social media is clearly the main cause of the adolescent mental health crisis. They argue that constant use of social media fuels feelings of inadequacy, isolation, anxiety, stress and sadness in American youth. Instagram has come under fire to promote eating disorder accounts to girlsfor example.

These platforms are designed to maximize the amount of time spent on them, with algorithms that feed users endless targeted content. There is concern that the amount of time children spend online means they are missing out on in-person experiences that improve their mental health.

But others say the story of teenage health is not so simple. They argue that there are so many other factors creating stress in the lives of teenagers — including the pandemic, political tensions, mass shootings and climate change fears — that it’s impossible to isolate the impact of social media alone. they have Some experts argue that excessive use of social media may ultimately be a symptom of mental health challenges, rather than a root cause.

What’s next

Social media companies are increasingly aware of their effect on young people, and have developed efforts to limit some forms of content. But it is not clear whether a company effort or a new regulation will have a significant impact on the mental health of teenagers.


We are only just beginning to realize how catastrophic social media has been for today’s kids

“For a while, Big Tobacco had immense profits and popularity. But eventually, the companies were responsible. We live in a moment when we are only learning the social and psychological damage of social media.” – Jean M. Twenge, Clare Morell and Brad Wilcox, Deseret News

Treating social media as a mental health boogeyman means the real causes are not being addressed

“In the name of ‘children’, people have been obsessed with new arts and technologies for centuries, and social media platforms are just the latest target. And while there is probably a mental health emergency, this moral panic it allows politicians to divert attention from the more complex causes of the problem, while not helping children.- Trevor Burrus and Nicole Saad Bembridge, The hill

Children who grew up on social media never learned how to manage life in the real world

“In short, yes, social media can have negative consequences for our mental health. The younger generation has grown up with social media and the ability to see anything, anytime, anywhere. Our ability to tolerate anxiety of waiting has been eroded because we can Google the answer to almost any question.” — Jessica Holzbauermental health researcher

Social media is nothing more than a way for teenagers to express how the world makes them feel

“Linking social media and mental health is a powerful political talking point, but it’s an oversimplification. … Social media use can be a predictor of mental health problems, but it’s not the cause. The positive and negative effects of social media arise from how they are used.” – Nick Hurzeler, Salt Lake Tribune

Every hour spent online means missing out on more satisfying experiences

“Even for children who do not suffer from mental health challenges, the daily time spent on social media … has clearly replaced other, healthier social activities for children.” – Christine Rosen, National Review

We live in very stressful times that weigh heavily on young people

“When we take this step back, we can see that the real sources are found in what we must recognize is in fact a pandemic of stress, which affects everyone, but especially worrying in the case of teenagers who are in a transition of very sensitive development”. – Daniel P. Keating, Psychology today

Online relationships do not meet the needs of growing children

“Teenagers access social media or spend time online to try to make connections, but end up feeling more lonely and sad than ever. Faceless communication not only produces feelings of isolation and loneliness, but, at the on the contrary, it increases cases of cyberbullying, susceptibility to sex trafficking, and more. – Nicole Russell, Newsweek

Social media may be harmless to most, but it actually harms a small number of children

“Social media is not like rat poison, which is toxic to almost everyone. It is more like alcohol: a mildly addictive substance that can enhance social situations, but can also lead to addiction and depression among a minority of users.” – Derek Thompson, The Atlantic

Social media bombards young people with messages that fuel their anxiety and sadness

“Previous generations had to pick up a book or play a record to help define the vague despair they felt. It takes effort to have some introspection – something that’s healthy in small doses. Now, kids have the doomscrolling on demand and information overload”. – Kirsten Fleming, New York Post

Social media is extremely complex – so are its impacts

“If we only talk about social media, we combine all kinds of different experiences into a homogeneous catch – everything that makes it loses any kind of meaning. … Go to TikTok and watch videos like the direct message to a friend to ask help with something? They are very different experiences.” – David Bickham, media researcher, at EdSurge

Denying teens access to social media would cause incredible damage

“It is undoubtedly true that an excessive amount of social media use is unhealthy among a certain number of teenage users. … [But] it does not follow that it deprives millions of young people any Access to social media would be beneficial for adolescent mental health. On the contrary, suddenly flipping the Internet switch would be a great way to make a lot of kids miserable. – Robby Soave, Right

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Illustrative photo: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images (2)

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