cancel
Showing results for 
Search instead for 
Did you mean: 

Does Social Media Use Help Explain Rising Rates of Depression and Self-Harm Among Teen Girls?

Author
Author
1 2 4,252

Consider two facts:

  1. Worldwide, smartphones and easier social media access exploded starting in 2010. Consider U.S. smartphone-use (and its projected future):351344_cell phone depression.png
  2. Simultaneously—and coincidentally?—teen girls’ rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide have mushroomed (for Canadian, American, and British sample data see here, here, and here).

So, is there a causal connection? If so, is it big enough to matter?

 

Should parents give (or deny) their middle schoolers smartphones with Instagram or Snapchat accounts? And does amount of daily screen time matter?

 

In quest of answers, my esteemed social psychologist colleague Jonathan Haidt is assembling the available evidence using (and illustrating) three psychological methods. His tentative conclusions:

  • Correlational studies ask: Is social media use associated with teen mental health? Study outcomes vary, but overall, there is at least a small correlation between adolescents’ social media hours and their risk of depression, anxiety, and self-harm. The screen time–disorder association is stronger for social media use than for TV and gaming time, and the link is greater for females who are heavy social media users.
  • Longitudinal studies ask: Does today’s social media use predict future mental health? In six of eight studies, the answer is yes.
  • Experiments ask: Do volunteers randomly assigned to restricted social media use fare better than those not assigned on outcomes such as loneliness and depression? On balance, yes, says Haidt, but the few such studies have produced mixed results.

Haidt’s provisional conclusion can be seen in his tweet:351345_Haidt.png

In a Time essay, researcher Jean Twenge (my Social Psychology co-author) offers kindred advice for parents concerned about their children’s social media use:

  • “No phone or tablets in the bedroom at night.”
  • “No using devices within an hour of bedtime.”
  • “Limit device time to less than two hours of leisure time a day.”

Haidt also provides us a much-needed model of intellectual humility. In his continuing search for answers, he posts his tentative conclusions and accumulating evidence online, and he welcomes other researchers’ evidence and criticism. He writes,

I am not unbiased. I came to the conclusion that there is a link, and I said so in my book (The Coddling of the American Mind, with Greg Lukianoff). . . . Like all people, I suffer from confirmation bias. [Thus] I need help from critics to improve my thinking and get closer to the truth. If you are a researcher and would like to notify me about other studies, or add comments or counterpoints to this document, please request edit access to the Google Doc, or contact me directly.

 

In our college and AP psychology texts, Nathan DeWall and I commend “a scientific attitude that combines curiosity, skepticism, and humility.” We note that, when combined with the scientific method, the result is a self-correcting road toward truth. By embracing this spirit, Haidt exemplifies psychological science at its best—exploring an important question by all available methods . . . drawing initial conclusions . . . yet holding them tentatively, while welcoming skeptical scrutiny and further evidence. As he mused (when I shared a draft of this essay), “It is amazing how much I have learned, and refined my views, just by asking people to make me smarter.”

 

How true for us all. The pack is greater than the wolf.

 (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)

Tags (2)
2 Comments
Migrated Account

Thanks for the article, David. Since Jonathan Haidt (who happens to be one of my favourite psychology authors!) welcomes criticism, I wonder what he, or you, would think of my 20 year old son's response to Jonathan's take on restricting social media for young teens. My son, who works in the IT industry, sees social media as a means of disseminating information and he understand its utility to be somewhat like that of fire - helpful when used in a controlled way, but dangerous when used without thought. He thinks that we should teaching children how to use social media to increase in knowledge and be better at what we do. Banning it, he argues, will likely lead to an increase in its desirability (like the forbidden fruit) and fail to teach children how to engage with social media in useful ways. I'm curious as to what you think about his position.

Author
Author

Thank you for your excellent comment, Erin. I concur with your son, and thus quoted Steven Pinker at the end of an earlier essay (here😞 “The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life.”

About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).