Over the last decade, evidence has emerged identifying reasons for concern about the potential negative impact of social media on children and adolescents.
A study of U.S. adolescents aged 12–15 years found that adolescents who spent more than 3 hours per day on social media faced double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes including symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The study showed that in the USA, 8th and 10th graders spend an average of 3.5 hours per day on social media.
In a unique natural experiment that leveraged the staggered introduction of a social media platform across U.S. colleges, the roll-out of the platform was associated with an increase in depression (9% over baseline) and anxiety (12% over baseline) among college-aged youth.
The study’s co-author also noted that when applied across the entirety of the U.S. college population, the introduction of the social media platform may have contributed to more than 300,000 new cases of depression.
These findings raise serious concerns about the risk of harm from social media exposure for children and adolescents who are at a more vulnerable stage of brain development.
Limits on the use of social media have resulted in mental health benefits for young adults and adults. A small, randomized controlled trial in college-aged youth found that limiting social media use to 30 minutes daily over three weeks led to significant improvements in depression severity.
This effect was particularly large for those with high baseline levels of depression who saw an improvement in depression scores by more than 35%.
Another randomized controlled trial among young adults and adults found that deactivation of a social media platform for four weeks improved subjective well-being (i.e., self-reported happiness, life satisfaction, depression, and anxiety) by about 25–40% of the effect of psychological interventions like self-help therapy, group training, and individual therapy.
In addition to these studies, correlational research on associations between social media use and mental health has indicated reason for concern and further investigation.
This research points to a higher relative concern of harm in adolescent girls and those already experiencing poor mental health, as well as for particular health outcomes like cyberbullying-related depression, body image and disordered eating behaviours, and poor sleep quality linked to social media use.
For example, a study conducted among 14-year-olds found that greater social media use led to poor sleep, online harassment, poor body image, low self-esteem, and higher depressive symptom scores with a larger association for girls than boys.
A majority of parents of adolescents say they are worried that their child’s use of social media could lead to problems with anxiety or depression (53%), lower self-esteem (54%), being harassed or bullied by others (54%), feeling pressured to act a certain way (59%), and exposure to explicit content (71%).
The impact of parents’ behaviour was also measured in this research.
Two-thirds of adolescents in the study were doing well with their technology use and mental health. This group was called “Family-Engaged Teens,” since they reported good communication with their parents about technology use. Their parents also had low levels of their own social media use.
The smaller one-third group of teen participants had higher rates of negative health outcomes such as depression and loneliness. This group was called “At Risk Teens.”
This group of teen participants reported higher rates of social media use by their parents, as well as less frequent communication with their parents about their social media use.
Another recent study found that adolescents who had higher depression symptoms reported that their parents spent up to 8 hours a day on social media.
These studies highlight the important and positive role parents can play by communicating with their children about social media and serving as role models in monitoring their own social media use.
Meanwhile, a US Senate committee grilled CEOs from Meta, X, TikTok, Snap and Discord about measures they have in place to arrest the global explosion in online sexual exploitation and abuse. For some inexplicable reason Apple, Google and Microsoft were not called to appear.
Nothing substantial was achieved. There were the usual Big Tech platitudes and apologies including a formal apology at the hearing by Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg.
No formal commitments were made to take immediate action to protect children.
This means parents and carers worldwide need to take even more responsibility for protecting their loved ones because their governments appear unwilling to take on Big Tech companies.
Politicians in these governments – including our own – have a lot to answer for and certainly must share the blame for all the suffering caused to so many young people.