Suppose your 13-year-old daughter wants to survive on candy during this long pandemic, and she challenges you to prove that candy is bad for her. For help, you turn to the internet – and find plenty of newspaper articles with headlines like “Don’t Panic About Teen Sweets!”
You are surprised to find that many of the scientific articles on which these articles are based use a very broad definition of “sweets” – a definition that includes not only candy and soda, but also fresh fruit, carrots and beets in because of their sugar content. But you wonder: What if the search had been based on what your daughter is? really after – junk food with a lot of refined sugar, like candy and soda?
This is where we are with research on digital media use and adolescent mental health – a place where the most cited studies mask the real risks.
Almost every article telling parents not to worry about their kids’ media consumption cites studies on “screen time” or “digital technology use.” But this is a broad category that boils down to defining “candy” as everything from carrots to candy, instead of considering which activities might be worse than others.
One of the most cited studies, by a research team from Oxford University, used an advanced statistical technique to run over 60,000 analyzes on three large data sets. They found that adolescent screen time is indeed correlated with poor mental health, but also found that “the association between well-being and regular potato consumption was almost as negative as the ‘association with the use of technology’, a finding that made headlines.
The newspaper’s definition of “screen time” included watching television or simply owning a computer, as well as healthy social interactions such as talking with friends on the phone. It also included social media, which is known to be more performative and toxic. Does the story change when we limit the analysis to social media, where teens most often congregate?
It does, a lot. In a new paper, we used the same advanced statistical technique and found that the link between social media use and girls’ poor mental health was 10 times greater than what the Oxford paper identified for the “screen time”. A recent paper by two Spanish statisticians also looked at the Oxford researchers’ techniques and also found a much stronger link. These findings match internal Facebook research, leaked by a whistleblower and published last fall, which concluded that Instagram leads to depression and body image issues, particularly among teenage girls.
The new study shows that, for girls in particular, the correlation between mental health and social media use is greater than that between mental health and heavy drinking, early sexual activity, drinking hard drugs, suspension from school, marijuana use, lack of exercise, arrested by police and carrying a weapon. This makes not mean that these reckless activities are safer than using social media. But this means that if we are going to reject social media for small statistical associations, we must also reject a long list of regularly targeted activities for public health interventions.
If you’re wondering what that connection looks like in practical terms, consider this number: Heavy social media users are two to three times more likely to be depressed than non-users. Knowing this, would you let your kids spend unlimited time on Instagram?
Of course, correlation does not prove causation. Perhaps depression comes first, causing depressed teens to seek solace on social media. It may be history, but many experiments show that the causal arrow goes from social media use to depression.
So what if your 13-year-old daughter starts an argument similar to what we described above about candy: she wants to spend eight hours a day on her phone, and she dares you to say why she doesn’t. shouldn’t? First, talk to her about her goals and what matters to her – how does she want to spend her time? How does she feel when she FaceTimes her friends, compared to when she scrolls through the pages of Instagram influencers? Discuss how social media apps are designed to keep people using them for as long as possible because that’s how companies make the most money. If your child is 12 or younger, the decision is even simpler: 13 is the minimum age to have an account according to social media platform rules, so just say no.
Our finding that social media has a stronger link to mental health issues than “screen time” in general is good news for parents. Instead of being faced with the near impossible task of controlling all of our children’s use of technology, we can focus on the activities that seem to be the most harmful, especially social media.
These are not baby potatoes.