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Does social media cause teen mental health issues?
An up-to-date guide to the research, and where we go from here
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9 min read
In my day job as a professional techno sapien,1 I get this question roughly once per day:
Does social media use cause mental health issues in teens?
In fact, I spend the majority of each day thinking, reading, and writing about this question. Oddly, this makes it an especially hard question to answer.
If you were to ask me a simple yes-or-no question about nearly any other topic, I’d have no problem. Like, let’s say you asked me: Hey, will those Vive Organic immunity boost wellness shots from Whole Foods stop me from getting sick? I’d cut to the chase and say: No. They are literally just spicy juice. The simplicity of this answer relies on the fact that I actually know nothing about the science (or lack thereof) behind tiny, $4 bottles of orange juice mixed with cayenne pepper.2
But when someone asks a simple yes-or-no question on a subject with which you’re extremely familiar, it’s impossible to answer without a steady stream of caveats, clarifications, and it’s complicated’s.
So, here’s my answer.
The spicy juice version
Suppressing the temptation to caveat my caveats with even more caveats, here’s the shortest possible version of an answer to this question that I can muster:
Social media use alone does not cause mental health issues.
There is a statistically significant (but very small) association between more time spent on social media and worse mental health.
Other stuff matters more, like how teens use it and who they are.
We need to think about how to maximize social media’s benefits, while minimizing its risks.
The, ahem, more comprehensive version
Let’s kick things off with a higher-level caveat to really get the party started: this is my take on the current research in the field of adolescent social media use and mental health. My thinking on this has changed over time, as the research has evolved. It will continue changing as new research comes out.
As a researcher writing publicly, there’s a certain amount of pressure to plant a flag when it comes to controversial research topics. I would like to retain the option of moving my flag in the future.
First things first: What causes mental illness?
So, the first thing we need to address is that mental health issues are complex. When we or someone we know (and, especially, our kids) are struggling with depression or anxiety, it makes a lot of sense that we really want to know why. So, we look around for a reason.
Maybe it was that break-up, we think, or was it that time they got bullied? But the truth is that every mental illness is caused by a multitude of factors: biological predispositions, environmental stressors, social surroundings, cultural beliefs, societal systems. It’s never just one thing.
Even when it seems like a mental health issue is being caused by one thing, there’s a larger system at play. To illustrate, let’s imagine a friend of yours loses their job and then becomes depressed. It seems like the job loss caused their depression, but in fact, many people lose their jobs and do not go on to develop depression. Other factors, like their underlying biology, history, and other life circumstances, also have to play a role.
So yes, certainly, for some teens social media might act as one stressor that contributes to a larger system of risk for mental illness. But does using social media, on its own, cause mental illness in teens? No.
But does social media contribute?
Okay, so we know that social media alone cannot cause mental illness, but now the question is: does social media contribute? In other words, does social media, and the amount teens use it, increase the likelihood that they will develop a mental health issue?3
Many, many studies have tried to answer this question. I have read most of them, and have even done a few of them. So, grab a pair of high socks and some bug spray: we’re about to get into the weeds.
Here’s how most of these studies try to answer the question. They take a group of teens, measure how much they use social media, and then ask them about their mental health. Sometimes they do all of this at the same time (cross-sectional studies), and sometimes they do it across different time points, a few years apart (longitudinal studies).4
Do these studies show that teens who use more social media have worse mental health? In general, yes. But as you well know at this point, techno sapiens, correlation does not mean causation. It might just be that teens who already have worse mental health are more likely to use social media more often, or that another third variable (like, maybe, difficulties with self-regulation) are causing both more social media use and worse mental health.
But taken altogether, even with their flaws, these studies probably tell us something. In fact, we have so many studies on the question of whether time spent on social media is associated with mental health, that there are now multiple meta-analyses and even a few “umbrella reviews,” which are kind of like meta-analyses of a bunch of meta-analyses. Science is wild, sapiens.
Here’s what they show: across studies, there tends to be a statistically significant, though very small, association between more time on social media and worse mental health.5
What does a “small effect size” mean?
Now, let’s assume we take this finding at face value—that using social media a lot does actually contribute to worse mental health. What does it mean when we say that the association is “statistically significant but small”?
The way statistics in psychology work is that we often end up with a number (the “correlation coefficient, or r) that tells us the strength of the association between two variables. In a recent umbrella review, most studies find correlations between social media use and lower teen mental health that range from r = .05 to r = .17. There are, of course, entire fields of science devoted to making sense of these statistics (see the research on violent video games for a similar debate).
Some argue that these numbers, which would mean less than 3% of the variance in mental health is due to social media use, are way too small to matter. Others say that, when small effects happen at a large scale (i.e., the entire population), they become meaningful, and—not to mention—most studies in psychology find effects between r = .11 to r = .29 (average r = .19), so these numbers aren’t much smaller than what we typically see in psychology research.
So this is where we’re currently at in the field: debating the meaning of these decimal points.
Are these studies even asking the right question?
Here’s another layer to consider: does this question, of whether more time spent on social media is associated with worse mental health, matter?
Is this even the right question to be asking?
There’s a problem with these studies that goes beyond the issues of small effect sizes and correlations and researchers shouting at each other through their laptops, and it is this: averages. These studies essentially take an average of all the time kids spend on social media, and then look at how it affects all kids, altogether.
In doing so, these studies gloss over two very important truths:
Kids are very different from one another.
A lot of different things are happening on social media.
There is a lot of good stuff happening on social media for teens, like connecting with friends, learning about the world, and generally having fun. There is also a lot of bad stuff happening, like exposure to harmful or inappropriate content, negative comparisons with others, and the feeling that they can’t stop using it, even if they want to. There are benefits of social media, and there are risks. Measures of overall “time spent” lump all these experiences together, so it’s no wonder the effects seem small.
Add to that the fact that teens use and are affected by social media in very different ways, based simply on who they are, and their individual strengths and vulnerabilities. For some teens, social media does have a mostly negative impact on their mental health. For others, it’s mostly positive. And for most, it’s a mix of positive and negative.
To sum up: social media has both risks and benefits, and it affects different teens’ mental health in different ways.
It is tempting, then, to stop the discussion there. Social media is not all bad! There are both risks and benefits! Who cares!
This is wrong, too.
How to weigh risks and benefits
There are many situations in teens’ lives that have both risks and benefits, and which affect different teens in different ways. In each of these situations, we’ve had to decide how to weigh those benefits and risks.
Let’s take middle school, for example. Was that a good time in your life? No, I didn’t think so. There is bullying and gossip and sitting alone in the cafeteria and all manner of terrible things. These are risks. And yet, going to school has benefits: learning, making friends, becoming a productive member of society. We’ve taken steps to minimize the risks as much as possible, like through anti-bullying campaigns and social-emotional learning programs, for example. For most kids, we’ve decided that these benefits outweigh the risks, so we send them off to school each day to navigate the ups and downs.
Now let’s take a different example, at the other extreme: drunk driving. Would we ever suggest a teen do this? Of course not. The risks are far too great. But one could theoretically argue there are benefits—fun with friends, socialization, getting out of the house and exploring new places by car. In other words: just because something has some benefits does not mean those outweigh—or even match—the risks.
And there are lots of situations in the gray zone. Going to parties, having sleepovers, playing contact sports, getting a smartphone. How we weigh these risks and benefits involves a careful calculation of the situation and how our individual teen responds to it.
As it currently stands, social media platforms are not designed with the right balance of risks and benefits in mind. Yes, there’s plenty of good stuff. But if you were starting from scratch, designing a product that you were confident would do a great job of providing all those benefits (social connection, fun, learning) while minimizing the downsides, would you come up with TikTok?
And with social media apps designed as they currently are, is it, in general, a good thing for teens to be spending 3 hours everyday scrolling TikTok?
Also, probably no.
I’ve been skimming this post. What do I need to know?
Based on what we know from this research, there are a few key takeaways for parents and those of us who work with teens:
If a teen is struggling with their mental health, there are likely many factors involved. Social media may be contributing, but it’s not the only cause, and taking it away completely is probably not the solution.
Exactly how much time teens are spending on social media likely matters less for their mental health than what they are doing during their time on social media.
Social media will affect different teens in different ways. Our goal is to help teens find a balance on social media of what works for them—how much time they spend, who they talk to, and what kinds of content they look at.
To understand how social media impacts teens’ mental health, we need to understand who they are outside of social media, and how their use of social media intersects with their strengths and vulnerabilities.
Research will continue searching for answers to the question of social media use and teen mental health, but I’m confident we’ll never have a clear “yes” or “no.” This is, unfortunately, not a spicy juice situation.
Where we go from here involves answering some thornier questions:
How much risk are we willing to allow on platforms, and how do we determine when the benefits of these platforms outweigh their risks?
How will we decide (and who will decide) whether these small effect sizes are meaningful?
What is the “burden of proof” we need before making changes to social media platforms? How definitive does the research need to be?
What can we do to maximize the upsides of these platforms for teens’ mental health, while minimizing the downsides?
When it comes to this question of whether social media use causes mental health issues in teens, the simple answer is: it’s complicated.
Valkenburg, Meier, & Beyens. (2022). Social media use and its impact on adolescent mental health: An umbrella review of the evidence. An “umbrella review” of meta-analyses on this topic.
Haidt, J., & Twenge, J. (ongoing). Social media and mental health: A collaborative review. A working, collaborative document where researchers are tracking studies on social media and mental health.
How to find a therapist. The Techno Sapiens guide to finding a therapist for yourself or your child.
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Professional techno sapien = clinical psychologist and professor of psychiatry at Brown University.
I mean, of course there’s a story here. What did you expect? My husband and I recently picked up a grocery order from Whole Foods, and when we got home, realized we’d mistakenly been given another customer’s bag. It contained about 20 of these Vive Organic “wellness shots.” How fun! I thought, Let me check the ingredients to see what kind of magical elixir we’ve lucked into. Sapiens: the ingredients, I kid you not, are fruit juice and spices (ginger, turmeric, and black pepper). I tried a sip, and couldn’t get the rest of it down without my eyes watering and throat burning. Each bottle is 2 ounces and costs roughly $4. For a tiny, spicy juice. There’s no way these things work! (But, also, if I drink these will my family and I finally stop getting viruses this season? Perhaps it is more complicated?)
There are two separate, but related, questions here. The first is the one we discussed: is time spent on social media associated with mental health? The second is: has the introduction of social media caused the increase in mental health issues that we’re seeing among teens? The latter may be even harder to answer than the former.
What about experimental designs? So, when it comes to the question of “time spent” on social media, these are particularly challenging. Ideally, the way we would design an experiment on this topic would be something like: take all the babies born in the world and assign some of them, when they reach age 13, to use social media (but not at all beforehand), and some of them not to, and then follow their mental health over time. This, obviously, won’t work. Researchers have tried other experimental designs instead, like randomly assigning some people to stop using social media for a period of time, and others to keep using social media as they normally would. Findings from these types of studies have been mixed and are highly dependent on the details of the design (i.e., are they stopping social media use completely? Just reducing the time? All platforms or just some? Did participants actually stick with it?) Stay tuned for a review of these studies in a future post.
One more caveat because, well, I can’t help myself. When we talk about this small association between “time spent on social media” and “mental health,” we’re generally not accounting for the extremes. A small portion of teens may engage in what’s called “problematic use,” where their use of social media is causing significant impairment and interference with their day-to-day functioning. If you are concerned your teen might fall into this category, it’s important to talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.