Technology is easy to blame for the mental health crisis that kids are facing. But according to experts, it’s not that simple.
A rare public advisory from the U.S. surgeon general in December 2021 warned that young people are facing unprecedented challenges that have had a “devastating” effect on their mental health. These difficulties were already widespread before the pandemic started in 2020 — with up to 1 in 5 people in the U.S. ages 3 to 17 having a reported mental, emotional, developmental or behavioral disorder.
We often attribute the crisis to technology, particularly social media. After all, young people today are spending much of their time glued to screens like no generation before them. One study conducted in 2021 found that teens spent 7.7 hours per day in front of screens for activities unrelated to school. But there is not a definitive correlation between mental health and social media use.
Over 7 hours of screen time may sound excessive. But as more and more of life moves online for people of all ages, it is to be expected. Technology brings with it challenges and opportunities for today’s youngest generations. Even as its use rises and youth mental health declines, researchers haven’t found a clear link between social media and mental health but instead a lot of factors of modern life, including technology, that interconnect.
What researchers are learning about social media and kids’ mental health
There’s been a lot of research on the subject over the last decade, but we still haven’t learned anything conclusive.
Amanda Lenhart, a researcher who focuses on how technology affects families and children for the Data & Society Research Institute, said studies generally show a slight negative impact of social media on people’s well-being, or none at all.
“We have this narrative about it being a negative thing, but we’re not seeing it in the data,” Lenhart said.
In a project by the Universities of Amsterdam and Tilburg, researchers have been exploring the relationship between adolescents’ social media use and their well-being. Early data from that project, Lenhart said, suggests that about 70% don’t feel any different after using social media; 19% feel a lot better; and 10% feel worse.
“I think one big takeaway is that there’s a subgroup of people for whom using these platforms is not great,” Lenhart said. More research is now focusing on identifying this group and what their experience is like.
Lenhart said results are showing a model called differential susceptibility, meaning different people can have different responses to the same platform.
For example, a child of color may have a more negative experience on a social media platform than others because he or she faces harassment. A platform could also worsen feelings of depression for someone who’s already depressed.
“It’s not that a platform always makes people feel worse or better, but that it exacerbates their highs and exacerbates their lows,” Lenhart explained.
Experts are concerned that social media platforms are designed with adults as the user in mind, grabbing their attention and keeping them scrolling. Tech companies can do a lot better with content moderation and ensuring age-appropriate and health-promoting content, said Michael Robb, who for the last 15 years has been researching the effects of media and technology on children’s development. He’s currently the senior director of research at Common Sense Media, a U.S. nonprofit that advocates for internet safety for families.
“Expecting that you could iterate and iterate when you’re dealing with a sensitive population without having given real care to what’s going on developmentally can be irresponsible,” Robb said, adding that the concept of “move fast and break things” in the tech space should not be applied to children.
Lenhart expressed the same sentiment, pointing to Snapchat’s Snapstreaks feature, which encourages two people to send each other a photo or video snap everyday to keep up a streak.
“I think when they were built, the idea was this was going to be a really fun thing that would be a chance for people to feel connected, get people coming back every day, “ Lenhart said. “But I think they failed to realize that in particular contexts, particularly among young people, peer relationships are very important and intense.”
In some instances, the feature resulted in unproductive behavior and an obsession with making sure to keep up the streaks. People would give other people their passwords before they couldn’t send snaps when they go places without reliable internet or when they were sick.
“It became a thing that was very agitating and disturbing for a subset of young people,” Lenhart said.
How social media affects people’s well-being could also depend by age, according to a large study conducted in the U.K. from 2011 and 2018. It identified two periods when heavy social media use predicted a drop in “life satisfaction” ratings a year later: 14-15 and 19 years old for males, and 11-13 and 19 years old for females. The inverse was also true: Lower social media use in those periods predicted an increase in life satisfaction ratings.
The study argues that by looking at the issue in a developmental lens, research could make “much needed progress in understanding how social media use affects well-being.”
A ‘lifeline’ for many young people
During the pandemic, social media has played an outsized role among young people seeking connection and help with their mental health.
A study from Common Sense Media found that social media and other online tools concluded that they’ve “proven to be the lifeline that many young people needed to get through this last year.”
The study surveyed 14- to 22-year-olds across the U.S. from September to November 2020. More than 85% of them went online in search of health information, 69% used mobile apps related to health issues, 47% connected with a provider online and 40% sought people experiencing similar health concerns.
From 2018 to 2020, more teens and young adults reported relying on social media platforms for support, community and self-expression, the study found.
Social media can pose real problems among young people, especially if they’re already vulnerable, like those experiencing depression or those who come from marginalized communities, said Robb, who co-authored the report. “But many kids are also using social media and the internet to look up things related to their mental health, or look for other people who may be experiencing similar things.”
He added, “If you’re a teen who’s experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety looking for others who have had similar experiences, being able to take solace in the fact that you’re not alone, or perhaps get tips or advice or other kinds of support from others who are in your community – I don’t want to undervalue social media in those respects, because that’s the other side of the coin that I think does not get talked about quite as often.”
Tips for families
Current research suggests that there’s no clear, direct line between internet use and screen time to mental health concerns with children. Like everything in life, context matters.
“We worry a lot about how much screen time every kid is having, and there are no conclusive studies saying how much screen time exactly is good or bad,” said Melanie Pinola, who spoke to various experts in writing a guide to how and when to limit kids’ tech use for The New York Times. She now covers tech and privacy at Consumer Reports.
She noted that even the American Association of Pediatrics has changed its recommendations on screen time a couple of times.
With a new generation of people who never lived in a world without the constant presence of technology, there’s still a lot of unknowns.
“We’re always learning and trying to adapt to what we know,” Pinola said.
How to help kids have a better internet experience
While there’s no consensus as to how, exactly, children can be raised to have a good relationship with technology, here are what families can do:
1. Be open
Lenhart suggests parents learn about online platforms and use them with their children. “Have an attitude of openness about them, remembering that even as you limit your child’s use of these platforms, you’re also potentially limiting their access to social connection, learning and relationships, because that’s where a lot of these things happen,” Lenhart said.
She acknowledged that there’s a lot of good reasons why some platforms shouldn’t be used by children as young as 12 or 13, but Lenhart said ideally, adults should figure it out with their kids. She suggested families ask themselves: Is the platform something that you can use together, or that children can use independently?
2. Find good content
Robb noted that there’s plenty of content online, from YouTube channels to video games, that are great for younger kids.
Common Sense Media rates movies, TV shows, books, games and other media for age appropriateness and “learning potential.”
“The PBS Kids apps are a lifesaver,” said Lucile Vareine, who works with Mozilla’s communications team and has two young kids. “We go to the public library to research about animals we just discovered on PBS Shows.”
The Mozilla Foundation also creates a guide that analyzes the online security of different products, from mental health apps to toys and games.
3. Think of your child’s well-being outside of technology
Instead of just dialing down on children’s screen time, Robb suggests focusing on things that are essential to children’s health development. Think about whether they’re getting quality sleep, enough socialization with friends, family time and good nutrition.
“There are lots of things that are really important that are much better supported by data in terms of kids’ mental and physical health than just how many hours of screen use,” Robb said. “I wouldn’t worry so much, if it’s an hour or three hours. I’d look over the course of the week and see, ‘Is my kid doing the things that I hoped that they would be doing?’”
4. Set boundaries
Pinola said it helps, just like with other aspects of parenting, to set some boundaries. She suggests starting slowly, like having a “no tech dinner” rule.
“When I tried that with my [16-year-old] daughter, it worked,” Pinola said. “Now, we’re actually having conversations over dinner, which is what I was used to growing up. If you start small like that, you start to introduce the feeling for kids that they can be off their devices, and there might be a better experience for them.”
5. Use parental controls with your child’s consent, but give them room to grow
Whether it’s time limits or filters, there’s a lot of tools within platforms that can be used by parents who have younger children. Lenhart recommends using these tools with your child’s knowledge, making sure they understand why you’re using them and having a plan to ease oversight.
“We need to teach them slowly but surely how to manage themselves in these spaces,” Lenhart said. “Giving them opportunities to fail with you around to help pick them back up and talk about it with is good. There can be false starts. But it’s definitely something that we have to do.”
Adults shouldn’t be surprised if their kids can go around these tools.
“Young people are much more adaptive than we would think,” Pinola said.
“When we try to limit their tech use too restrictively or try to monitor them a lot, that can be counterproductive because they are so good at [technology], they’re going to find ways to bypass whatever barriers you put,” she said. “It’s just a matter of balance between you and your child.”
The internet is a great place for families. It gives us new opportunities to discover the world, connect with others and just generally make our lives easier and more colorful. But it also comes with new challenges and complications for parents raising the next generation. Mozilla wants to help parents make the best online decisions for their kids, whatever that looks like, in our latest series, Parental Control.
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