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Is it fair to blame social media for teenagers’ mental health?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Rates of depression and suicidal thoughts among American teenagers increased dramatically between 2011 and 2021 — particularly among girls and children who don’t identify as heterosexual — according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC’s report is the latest evidence of a severe teen mental health crisis in the U.S. that has become worse over the past decade. In the eyes of some psychologists and lawmakers, social media is to blame.

Today’s teenagers, with smartphones in their pockets, spend far more time online than any other previous generation. Nearly all say they use the internet daily, and almost half use it “almost constantly,” according to a Pew poll taken last year. The bulk of that time is spent on social platforms like YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram and, to a lesser extent, Facebook.

Last month, public schools in Seattle sued several major social media companies, accusing them of exploiting the “vulnerable brains of youth” for profit. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has announced plans to file a similar lawsuit. Several members of Congress have promoted legislation that would impose new guardrails on child social media use, with some calling for a legal age minimum for users.

Why there’s debate

There’s an enormous amount of evidence, including both academic research and testimony from kids themselves, that today's youth are struggling with mental health. But the question is far from settled as to how much social media is to blame.

Many experts make the case that social media is clearly the root cause of the teen mental health crisis. They argue that constant social media use fuels feelings of inadequacy, isolation, anxiety, stress and sadness in American youth. Instagram has come under fire for promoting eating disorder accounts to young girls, for example.

These platforms are designed to maximize the amount of time spent on them, with algorithms feeding users endless targeted content. There are concerns that the sheer amount of time kids are spending online means that they’re missing in-person experiences that would improve their mental health.

But others say the teen health story isn’t so simple. They argue that there are so many other factors creating stress in teens’ lives — including the pandemic, political tensions, mass shootings and fear of climate change — that it’s impossible to isolate the impact that social media alone is having. Some experts argue that excessive social media use may ultimately prove to be a symptom of mental health challenges, rather than a root cause.

What’s next

Social media companies are increasingly conscious of their effect on young people, and have rolled out efforts to restrict some forms of content. But it's not clear whether any company effort or new regulation will make a significant impact on teenage mental health.

Perspectives

We’re only just beginning to understand how catastrophic social media has been for today’s kids

“For a time, Big Tobacco enjoyed immense profits and popularity. But eventually, the companies were held accountable. We are living at a moment when we are just learning of the social and psychological harms of social media.” — Jean M. Twenge, Clare Morell and Brad Wilcox, Deseret News

Treating social media as the mental health boogeyman means the real causes go unaddressed

“In the name of ‘the children,’ people have been freaking out about new arts and technologies for centuries, and social media platforms are just the latest target. And while there likely is a mental health emergency, this moral panic allows politicians to divert attention away from the more complex causes of the problem, while not helping children at all.” — Trevor Burrus and Nicole Saad Bembridge, The Hill

Kids who’ve grown up on social media never learned how to manage life in the real world

“In short, yes, social media can have negative consequences for our mental health. The younger generation grew up with social media and the ability to see anything, anytime, anywhere. Our ability to tolerate the distress of waiting has been eroded because we can Google the answer to almost any question.” — Jessica Holzbauer, mental health researcher

Social media is nothing more than a medium for teens to express how the world makes them feel

“Linking social media and mental health is a powerful political talking point, but is an oversimplification. … Social media use may be a predictor of mental health problems but it’s not the cause. The positive and negative effects of social media arise from how it is used.” — Nick Hurzeler, Salt Lake Tribune

Every hour spent online means missing out on more fulfilling experiences

“Even for children not suffering from mental-health challenges, the time every day spent on social media … has clearly replaced other, healthier social activities for children.” — Christine Rosen, National Review

We live in very stressful times that weigh especially heavily on young people

“When we take this step back, we can see that the real sources lie in what we should recognize is in fact a stress pandemic, affecting everyone, but especially worrisome in the case of adolescents who are in a highly sensitive developmental transition.” — Daniel P. Keating, Psychology Today

Online relationships don’t fulfill the needs of growing children

“Teens log on to social media or spend time online trying to make connections, but end up feeling more alone and sad than ever. Faceless communication not only produces feelings of isolation and loneliness but, conversely, increases instances of cyber bullying, susceptibility to sex trafficking, and more.” — Nicole Russell, Newsweek

Social media may be harmless for most, but actually damaging for a small number of kids

“Social media isn’t like rat poison, which is toxic to almost everyone. It’s more like alcohol: a mildly addictive substance that can enhance social situations but can also lead to dependency and depression among a minority of users.” — Derek Thompson, The Atlantic

Social media bombards young people with messages that fuel their anxiety and sadness

“Previous generations had to pick up a book or play a record to help define the vague despair they felt. It took effort to have some introspection — something that is healthy in small doses. Now, kids have doomscrolling on demand and information overload.” — Kirsten Fleming, New York Post

Social media is extremely complex — so are its impacts

“If we just talk about social media, we’re combining all kinds of different sorts of experiences into one homogenous catch-all that makes it so it loses any kind of meaning. … Is going on TikTok and watching videos the same as direct messaging a friend to ask for help with something? Those are very different experiences.” — David Bickham, media researcher, to EdSurge

Denying teens access to social media would cause incredible harm

“It is undoubtedly true that some excess amount of social media usage is unhealthy among some number of teenage users. … [But] it does not follow that depriving millions of young people of any access to social media would be a boon to teen mental health. On the contrary, abruptly flipping the internet's off-switch would be a great way to make a whole lot of kids miserable.” — Robby Soave, Reason

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Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (2)