Protecting youth from the potential negative mental health effects of social media is front and center in the mass media, in conversations around dinner tables, and in federal- and state-level bills.
I expect the biggest problem is the news. Teens are at the age when they really begin to see the world as a whole.
It's frustrating to me that none of the options are to turn off the algorithms various social media platforms use. Showing people a time ordered feed of the people they purposefully follow first with the option of discovery as something they have to click over to see might do wonders for a majority of all of us.
Dr. Jetelina & Dr. Nesi, I am curious about your thoughts on Yondr phone pouches in high schools. My child's high school is implementing a Yondr pouch policy beginning this fall. Currently, each classroom has numbered phone"sleeves". Students are required to place their phone in a sleeve at the beginning of each class and they take it when they leave at the end. The sleeves are numbered so teachers can tell quickly whose phone is there and whose might be missing. However, my understanding is that some teachers enforce this rule and some don't (which I'm sure is par for the course in a large school).
The new policy would require each student to place their phone (also smartwatches and AirPods) in a locking pouch when they enter the building. It remains in the pouch for the entire day and staff members with handheld unlocking devices "free" the phones when students leave at the end of the day.
The reasoning for this is that students spend too much time on their phones and too little time interacting with each other and socializing. The administration believes that this will benefit students' mental health by creating a more inclusive environment, kids talking in the cafeteria instead of looking at phones, etc.
I have reservations about this (for a variety of reasons). I believe that it will further isolate the "fringe" kids. For some, lunch period is stressful because they don't have a group to sit with in the cafeteria. Those kids rely on their phones to have some outside interaction during an otherwise lonely time during the day. I know my son uses his phone sometimes to text friends whom he doesn't otherwise see in his classes, so they catch up, make plans for after school, etc. He would have less social time with those friends if he has no contact during the day.
I realize this isn't specifically related to social media because the phone is just a device -- lots of kids have phones and don't have social media. My kids (ages 17 and 12) both use phones for texting, Facetime with friends, and other purposes but neither has any social media apps or accounts (17yo isn't interested; 12yo asks but we're waiting).
However, our kids live in a digital world. I don't think literally locking up their phones during the day teaches them how to properly manage the digital environment. I want my kids to know when it is or is not appropriate to use their phone, and for what purposes. My 17-year-old checks his phone in between classes because the majority of their academic work is posted to Google Classroom (our district provides every student with a Chromebook), so he's always looking at his phone for Classroom notifications, changes to assignments, comments from teachers, etc. In addition, the groups and activities all communicate using apps like GroupMe or Discord. So, when club plans or after-school activities change, he receives that communication on his phone. I think preventing students from having any access will make things unduly burdensome without serving the intended purpose.
I would be so curious to hear your thoughts on phone use among kids, generally, even outside the social media context. As always, thank you for proving timely and data-driven information!
More seriously, I tutor high school kids (SAT/ACT). Based on their occasional and unprompted comments, most of them are aware of the following, if intermittently:
1. Carbon will eventually destroy their lives.
2. All adults know this, or should.
3. Almost nothing consequential—equal to the threat—is being done about it by those adults.
4. These same adults are pushing them to succeed in a future they are actively destroying.
I wonder if that plays a role. You note this possibility in your essay (but not nukes which is odd as we are nearly at midnight but denial of that threat is near-total). I say “intermittently” because this reality is too awful to live with 24/7—and not just for kids. But you can’t un-know it and denial has a psychic cost.
A friend of mine who just turned 80 is at least honest about it. He said he used to worry about all the horrors—and he gets them all—but he just gave up. He’s having a wonderful retirement. Suggested I do the same. Not, mind you, embrace the joy but keep fighting for what’s decent. Just, eh, whatever—playtime for me!
Beautiful mind > children, grandchildren, country, species, biosphere.
That is a level of utter sociopathy that I think is quite widespread. It’s why fascism is winning. They offer comforting delusions, especially of power, along with addictive sadism. Permission to be a monster with a beautiful mind, in the Barbara Bush sense.
The other option is facing reality, which is dire, and embracing sacrifice, which may come to naught anyway, for kids and the unborn.
Take a wild guess which option is more attractive—and which will become ever more so as things fall apart.
But I wonder to what extent this entirely obvious abandonment plays into the despair. This of course presumes the kids aren’t in as much functional denial as the adults. If not, it’s probably because well-off 53-year-olds like me think, with some justice, that we’ll escape the worst. If not, at least we will have lived a lot. Much easier to ignore reality when your own glutes aren’t on the line.
It's interesting to note that from 2019 - 2021 (i.e., the pandemic years), female high school students experienced a much bigger increase in "feelings of sadness or hopelessness in the past year."
Males went from appx 28% to 29% from 2019 to 2021, which is roughly flat
Females went from appx 45% to 58% from 2019 to 2021, which is a big increase
Yet even though high school females experience sadness and hopelessness at nearly twice the rate as males, males are much more likely to die by suicide. Why is that? Are females better at tolerating feelings of sadness/hopelessness? Or are males really more unsettled than they let on, and less likely to self-report sad/hopeless feelings, in which case maybe we need to find better ways to identify which ones are most at risk.
In terms of alternative explanations, in addition to pandemic responses that had a devastating effect on young people's well being, I think we (parents, schools) need to look at whether - in our effort to mold youth who will grow up to be good stewards of our planet and not contribute to social inequity - are we sending too many negative messages about climate change, social injustice, etc? What picture are we painting about the future world and is it one that instills hope in young people?
Your readers may enjoy following the work of Jonathan Haidt who frequently collaborates with Jean Twenge (she's one of the earliest researchers to argue the smartphon>mental health crisis) on the topic of teen mental health. Highly recommended "The Coddling of the American Mind" which presents the thesis that culturally, we are prioritizing safetyism which leads to fragility, which is a driving cause of the teen mental health crisis.
Even aspects of his argument I disagree with are argued well enough I enjoyed developing counterfactuals. Great book, and his substack is worth a read too. Latest post:
Interesting comment thread. Think cars not drugs, to me that is the comparison we can use when looking at SM. Should young children even be driving? Let's focus on not allowing toddlers and elementary school children from using SM. This is where the psychological damage begins. We need to focus on our very young which takes time. All too often I have watched parents buy distractions, bright shinny objects with flashing lights and sounds(the harms of these toys needs to be addressed) for their children so they have more time to complete all their priorities. That is where the social disconnect begins. I have watched generations of young children move away from collaborative, creative interaction in play. Foundations matter. Put the energy into the little ones and a strong foundation will help them with future challenges.
As for too much scary news, limit the news. As a family become active in one area of change you feel strongly about. Let your children see their are helpers and heroes and they will not be overly despondent about their future, all the while becoming a positive force for hope.
I note that this article applies very different standards to its assessment of potential harms versus benefit of social media. It cites and critically assesses studies that support harm including, interventional studies. That is good. However it cites no evidence that social media by children is beneficial, apparently relying on anecdotal evidence. Why?
You guys get the 2023 David Hume Award for distinguishing correlation from causation. This is a new award I just instituted, and the prize is me making this comment right now. Lucky you!
PS: Remember to add this to your CVs! 🙂
(As usual, very well done.)
Being pretty much ignorant of, and pre-dating by about 2 or 3 generations the science of child psychology, I wonder if there is now a "too much" factor, or something has been lost, since the days of Super Heroes in Comic Books, and Lonesome Cowboys with a black mask over their eyes once weekly on the TV. We also got to go to the Public Library, learned the duodecimal system, and lose ourselves in a book. (I was always looking for new space-cadet scifi).
Kids have always congregated in "gangs and gaggles", and punishing some kids with exclusion. No real mental damage to pretty near all.
When my wife and I decided to have kids, we moved out of the Metro area to a farming community and I took the train back to the city for work.
So, my question is this - have we lost something very consequential by gaining this absolute connectivity peopled by 'Influencers'?
Thank you for this balanced, nuanced view of social media and its effect on teens. I would argue that living with ever increasing violence (most especially GUN violence) and the general lack of effective responses from adults may play an even bigger role in mental health issues in teens.
Are drug overdoses counted as suicides? If not, should they be?
Dr. Nesi, do you have an opinion on the latest survey from Saipan labs?
Social media plays a big role in the mental health of adolesants, teenagers, and adults. There is a plethera of evidence-based research that supports the link between mental health and social media. Adolesent suicide rates have increased significantly over the years. As a child, I remembered being bullied in and after school, when I got home, I was in my safe place freee from being bullied until the next day. Social media allows children and adults to bully each other in the home that used to be a safe place. It is so much easier to bully a perso behind a screen or a phone than in person. Suicide is a problem that is close to my heart, My SIL died by suicide at the age of 35 in 2001, her husband was an emotional bully leaving mental not physical scars
I feel as a HCP we do not do enough to intervene for patients with mental health and suicide. We ask questions to screen for safety and suicide but it is not enough. The stigima wall associated with mental health is still there, some progress to take down that wall has been made; however, the pregress needs to be faster.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) WISQARS Leading Causes of Death Reports, in 2020:
Suicide was the twelfth leading cause of death overall in the United States, claiming the lives of over 45,900 people.
Suicide was the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10-14 and 25-34 , the third leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 15-24, and the fourth leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 35 and 44.
There were nearly two times as many suicides (45,979) in the United States as there were homicides (24,576).
Interesting to see this Ezra Klein interview with Jean Twenge on the heels of Dr. Jetelina’s post: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/19/podcasts/transcript-ezra-klein-interviews-jean-twenge.html. Twenge makes the case that smartphones and social media are central to the mental health struggles of young people. I’d love to get Dr. Jetelina’s take on the Twenge interview!
Katelyn, Jacqueline, I'm glad you are covering this. I recently came across this recent study reviewed by Jonathan Haidt and it seems very relevant to this topic - have you looked through this one yet? https://jonathanhaidt.substack.com/p/sapien-smartphone-report