What Role Does Social Media Use Play in the Youth Mental Health Crisis? Researchers Are Trying to Find Out

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Youth mental health is at a crisis point.

In December 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory on youth mental health. A few months later, the chief science officer at the American Psychological Association testified before a Senate committee that America’s youth mental health system was fundamentally flawed. Not only have symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression, increased in teens and children—but manifestations of those diseases, such as emergency room visits and suicides, have as well.

Much attention has been paid to the potential role of social media in that crisis. But researchers who study the relationship say that the field is still in its infancy, and new methodologies and funding sources are needed to understand it and push us toward a healthier environment for kids online.

“We’re really just in the early stages of trying to understand how young children and adolescents are affected by newer forms of digital media, including social media,” says Michael Robb, senior director of research at Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization focused on the role of media in the lives of children. “The research that we do have is inadequate in terms of helping us understand the ways in which the internet and social media affect youth well-being.”

Some studies have shown correlation between the mental health and well-being of adolescents and the amount of time they spend on social media. One meta-analysis of 12 different studies found depression correlated with time spent on social media, although weakly. But there’s a lack of consensus on the point because other studies don’t show a connection. So it is still unknown whether social media use negatively impacts adolescent mental health, or if engaging in social media is a behavior that children and teens with mental health challenges are more likely to engage in.

“If we change kids’ social media use, will that change their mental health? That’s the key question and I would say we don’t really know at this point,” says Kira Riehm, a postdoctoral fellow in psychiatric epidemiology at Columbia University who focuses on digital media and mental health. “Increasingly I’m seeing researchers writing about the fact that there are reasons to believe that people who are experiencing poor mental health would also go to social media and use it more.”

Social media use can encompass many different behaviors from messaging friends to watching videos to mindless scrolling. Understanding which behaviors can cause problems—and for which individuals—could help policymakers and tech companies regulate and design online spaces for young people.

“If we just talk about social media, we’re combining all kinds of different sorts of experiences into one homogenous catch-all that makes it so it loses any kind of meaning,” said David Bickham, research scientist at Boston Children’s Hospital’s Digital Wellness Lab who studies children and media. “Is going on TikTok and watching videos the same as direct messaging a friend to ask for help with something? Those are very different experiences.”

It’s possible that only some subgroups of youth may be vulnerable or susceptible to negative health effects from social media.

A recent study of adolescents with depression, co-authored by Bickham, sought to provide a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between specific patterns of social media use and mental health. The researchers considered the distinction between active forms of social media use, such as messaging, chatting or posting, and passive forms, like scrolling. They also looked at unique individual factors including age, gender, race and ethnicity. Ultimately, they found that content, context and individual factors might impact a person’s affect—or outward expression of emotion—after engaging in active or passive use of social media.

“There are a lot of individual differences among kids. It’s very tempting to treat kids as a big, monolithic group,” says Robb. “But really, that’s a very blunt way to look at how social media is affecting kids.”

There’s emerging evidence that social media may have some positive effects. It can help young people develop stronger links to friends or help them seek out resources when they need them. In a 2021 study of parents from researchers at the Digital Wellness Lab, most participants said their child’s media use was positive or helpful.

Further research could allow policymakers to better regulate platforms and help tech companies better tailor social media experiences for kids to tamp down on potential triggers and maximize the positive experiences that social media can create. Currently, most online spaces that kids and teens use weren’t designed with them in mind. Interventions and support could help the most vulnerable users.

“Parents and even kids themselves are recognizing that there are some benefits, especially through COVID, through social connectedness, social capital and access to resources,” said Maya Hernandez, a doctoral candidate in social ecology at the University of California, Irvine.

But understanding those benefits will require time and new methodologies. Most research so far has been cross-sectional, meaning it looks at two factors at just one point in time. That’s in part because it’s been the easiest type of study to do. But more scientists are beginning to design longitudinal studies, or studies that leverage ecological momentary assessment—a tool where study participants can note in real time what they are doing and how they are feeling.

The hope is that these new approaches will yield more reliable and intricate data. But researchers say their work is made more challenging by the fact that social media platforms change rapidly. And the inner working of platforms and algorithms is often opaque. Focusing more on general types of apps or activity can help ameliorate that, but it can’t change the fact that children grow up quickly, and the window of opportunity to intervene in their social media habits is brief.

More funding for research could help speed things along. The House recently passed a bill that would dedicate funding at the National Institutes of Health for a program studying the impact of media on children and adolescents. But whether it will become law is still up in the air.

“It’s hard to imagine that we’re going to revert back to a world with no technology,” says Emily Weinstein, research director at Harvard University’s Project Zero center.

Weinstein adds that understanding the experiences of young people is key to creating safer online spaces.

“What do we need to understand about their experiences, and what do we need to change about their experiences so that we are supporting the ultimate goal of happy, healthy kids in a world with unprecedented technology?” Weinstein asks. “I see research as the essential bridge to get us there.”

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