Social Media Syndrome—or Not? Explaining Today’s Teen Gloom

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It’s a “national youth mental health crisis.” So says U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy of post-2010 soaring teen depression. Today’s teens are sadder, lonelier, and (among girls) more suicide prone. It’s truly a tough time to be a teen.

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Converging evidence (as I summarized in a prior essay) points to a culprit: long hours on social media (4.8 hours per day, reports a new Gallup teen survey):

  • Correlational evidence reveals not only the simultaneous increase in smartphones and depression, but also an association between daily social media hours and depression risk.
  • Longitudinal studies have found that social media use at Time 1 predicts mental health issues at Time 2.
  • Experiments that randomly assign people to more or less social media exposure verify causation.
  • Quasi-experimental evidence confirms that the rollout of social media in a specific time and place predicts increased mental health issues.

In hindsight, it’s understandable: Daily online hours entail less face-to-face time with friends, less sleep, and more comparison of one’s own mundane life with others’ more glamorous and seemingly successful lives. Others, it seems, are having more fun. As Theodore Roosevelt reportedly observed, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

Still, this its-social-media claim has dissenters. In the latest of her lucid Substack essays, Jean Twenge—psychology’s leading teen mental health sleuth—identifies a baker’s dozen alternative explanations for today’s teen malaise, each of which she rebuts. To sample a few:

  • Today’s teens are just more transparent about their bad feelings. But behavioral measures, such as emergency room self-harm admissions, closely track the self-report changes.
  • The media/depression correlation is too weak to explain the crisis. But even a small .20 correlation can explain “a good chunk” of the increased depression—with “girls spending 5 hours a day or more on social media [being] twice as likely to be depressed.” The new Gallup survey confirms Twenge’s surmise, reporting that “teens who spend five or more hours per day on social media apps are significantly more likely to report experiencing negative emotions compared with those who spend less than two hours per day.” And Twenge is surely right: “If teens who ate 5 apples a day (vs. none) were three times more likely to be depressed, parents would never let their kids eat that many apples.”
  • It’s because of school shootings. But teen mental health risks have similarly surged in countries without school shootings.
  • It’s due to increased school pressure and homework. But today’s teens, compared to their 1990s counterparts, report spending less time on homework.
  • It’s because their parents are more depressed. But they aren’t. The mental health “crisis of our time” is a teen/young adult crisis.

Of the thirteen alternative explanations, Twenge concedes some credibility to but one—“It’s because children and teens have less independence.” Indeed, compared to yesteryear’s free-range children, today’s kids less often roam their neighborhood, play without adult supervision, and spend time with friends. But this trend, Twenge notes, dovetails with their increased online time. Moreover, the trend toward less teen independence predated the upsurge in both online hours and depression.

Twenge’s conclusion: “If teens were still seeing friends in person about as much, were sleeping just as much, and were not on social media 5 hours a day—all things traceable to the rise of smartphones and social media, I highly doubt teen depression would have doubled in a decade.”

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com or check out his new essay collection, How Do We Know Ourselves?: Curiosities and Marvels of the Human Mind. Follow him on Twitter: @davidgmyers.)

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).