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February 27, 2024

Mounting public warnings that social media is damaging teens’ mental health — most recently from the U.S. Surgeon General — have many parents more concerned about what all the time spent on their phones is doing to their kids’ brains.

While many scientists share concerns, there is little research proving social media is harmful — or indicating which sites, apps or features are problematic. There isn’t even a common definition of what social media is. It leaves parents, policy makers, and other adults in teens’ lives without clear guidance on what to worry about.

“We have some evidence to guide us, but in this case we just need to know more,” says psychologist Jacqueline Nesi of Brown University. study topic.

Surgeon Dr. Vivek Murthy, warning last month Social media poses a “serious risk of harm,” but he did not name any apps or sites. His report acknowledges that “there is no single, widely accepted academic definition of social media.”

Most studies look at platforms with user-generated content where people can interact. But this raises a lot of questions. Does it matter if teens see posts from people they know or don’t know? Does it make a difference if they post or just view? Does multiplayer count? Dating apps? composition?

YouTube illustrates the challenge.It’s by far the most popular site among teens: 95 percent use it, and nearly 20 percent say they use it “almost often,” Pew Research Center set up. It has all the features of social media, but most studies do not include it.

Some researchers speculate that YouTube may not have as many adverse effects because teens often use it passively, like watching TV, and don’t post or comment as frequently on other apps. Or, the researchers say, it could pose the same risk — offering endless scrolling and algorithmic recommendations, similar to TikTok. Neither way has clear data.

A review of existing research on social media use and adolescent mental health finds that much of it is “weak”, “inconsistent,“”not sure“”bag of mixed finds” and”Weighed down by “lack of quality” and “conflicting evidence”.

Research has yet to show which sites, apps or features of social media have which effects on mental health. “We don’t have enough evidence to tell parents to get rid of a particular app, or to turn it off after a certain number of hours,” says psychologist Sofia Chokas-Bradley. director Member of the Adolescent and Young Adult Lab at the University of Pittsburgh.

It’s also hard to prove that social media causes poor mental health, rather than being associated with it. most studies Measuring time spent on social media and mental health symptoms, many, though not all, found a correlation. But other researchers say measuring time spent isn’t enough: In these studies, it wasn’t clear whether time spent on social media was the problem, or time away from other things, such as exercise or sleep. For example, the studies blur whether someone spends hours on screens to escape mental coercion or seek support from friends.

Several studies have attempted new approaches to address these issues. onewhen Facebook launched in the mid-2000s, compared college campuses that had access to it with those that didn’t, and found that its presence had a negative impact on students’ mental health.

well-designed research, great project at the University of Amsterdam and Erasmus University Rotterdam, looking at both The average influence of social media on the 1,000 teens it surveyed and how they vary from person to person, and tracks teens over time.It found that time spent on social media was one less factor than teen’s mood when using.

Other studies have used brain scans to show that when teens look like Or check the feed frequently, which activates the brain’s sensitivity to social rewards and punishments.

“We usually see a small negative relationship between social media use and mental health,” says psychologist Amy Orben, who leads the Digital Mental Health Unit at the University of Cambridge. “But we don’t know what’s behind that. It could be that those who felt worse started using more social media, it could be that social media made them feel worse, or it could be socioeconomic status or something else that contributed to the link.” .”

Overall, research Discover Social media itself is not beneficial or harmful, its impact depends on the individual and what they see.

“We can’t say, ‘Don’t do X, Y is fine, stay away from Z,'” said Amanda Lenhart, director of research at Common Sense Media. what we see on social media. Sometimes it’s hair dye or dance videos, but sometimes it’s white supremacy or eating disorder content.”

Adolescents with certain vulnerabilities—such as those self-abasementpoor body image or social struggle – seems to be the riskiest.one experiment Exposure to manipulated images was found to directly lead to worse body image, especially for girls who were more likely to compare themselves to others.other set up Using social media to compare yourself to others and seek validation has been linked to depressive symptoms, especially in adolescents with social difficulties.

Social media often has both positive and negative effects on the same person. Project Awesome found it useful for connect higher levels of depression or anxiety and happiness or bliss.

in a common sense report, compared with girls without symptoms, teenage girls with depressive symptoms were more likely to say that social media made other people’s lives look better than theirs — and more likely to say that social media enhanced their social connections. They found mental health resources on social media, as well as harmful content related to suicide. Overall, the largest proportion of girls indicated that the influence of social media features was neutral.

Academic research takes a long time—often years to secure funding, conduct research, hire staff, recruit participants, analyze data, and submit for publication. Recruiting minors is even harder. By the end of a study, teens typically switch to a different platform—for example, many studies on specific platforms, on Facebook, which is no longer used by most teens. Tech companies also aren’t sharing enough data to help researchers understand the impact of their products, the Surgeon General’s report said.

Experts say they want to see research examine specific type Social media content, and things like how social media use in adolescence affects people in adulthood, what it does to neural pathways, and how to protect teens from negative influences.

Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge, psychologists who have expressed great concern about social media’s impact on teens suggested An experiment in which an entire middle school was randomly assigned to avoid or not use social media.

Experts agree that waiting for research is not an option. They also mostly agree that some level of social media use is beneficial. “Totally not using social media can have detrimental negative effects on development, because that’s where social interaction happens,” Professor Choukas-Bradley said.

Social media rules should be determined by individual teens’ maturity and challenges, the researchers said, adding that addressing risks should also be the responsibility of tech companies and policymakers, not just parents. They agree on some steps parents can take now:

  • put limitespecially at bedtime.

  • Don’t give young teens a smartphone right away. Start with a smartwatch or phone without internet.

  • Talk to your teen: Have them show you what they’ve seen, ask how they’re feeling, and discuss privacy and safety issues.

  • make a Family Screentime Program This takes into account which activities increase stress and which activities lead to long-term satisfaction.

  • Model responsible Internet use yourself.

It’s not about monitoring certain apps, says Prof. Caleb T. Carr communicate At Illinois State University: “Instead, parents should engage with their children. Like parents did pre-social media, talking about being good people and citizens, talking about respect for others and themselves, talking about how their day was going.”

Alicia Parlapiano contributed graphics



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