The Science Isn’t Settled on Social Media and Kids
Why are kids so sad these days? Belabored by parents and psychologists alike, this question is an important one with many complicated answers. However, when asked this question, most parents and psychologists will point to the child’s phone. Social media has been characterized as an omnipresent, malignant force in our society designed to suck our children in.
In reality, social media simply exists. Like television and radio which came before, social media has become an indispensable part of society, much to the chagrin of older generations. Previously, parents certainly bemoaned their children sitting in front of the television, but policies to ban television for minors completely were nearly unheard of.
Today, however, social media is not only widely accepted as a major cause of mental illness among young people, but also characterized as pervasive and beyond the control of parents. These narratives read much like a scary story. However, as in all scary stories, fear often obscures fact.
For instance, there is no scientific consensus on the impact of social media on the mental health of teenagers. Researchers have found a huge variety of positive, negative and neutral effects of social media on mental health throughout existing studies. While current research suggests an average to slight negative impact, these results are far from definitive.
This may surprise the average parent or policymaker. With the help of high-profile academics, the media, legislators and even the U.S. Surgeon General have crafted the conventional wisdom around a causation that doesn’t exist. In fact, the studies presented to the public are often flawed and statistically unsound. Much of existing literature on this topic suffers from overreliance on self-reported data, unrepresentative sample sizes and unsupported conclusions.
For instance, researchers often find lower levels of depression among those who report minimal social media use. While this data may be meaningful, some authors interpret this to mean that higher levels of social media use must also be correlated with higher levels of depression. Unfortunately, mental health is not that simple.
It’s fair to say that studies finding social media’s positive impacts on mental health may suffer similar methodological issues. However, most interested parties don’t even acknowledge that these studies exist. An eight-year longitudinal study that finds time on social media is unrelated to individual changes in depression or anxiety, even in transition between adolescence and emerging adulthood, certainly makes for a less sensational story. Similar studies also found links between social media use and lower loneliness; advanced senses of acceptance or belonging; more meaningful conversations; and the cultivation of social capital for those with low self-esteem, who often feel cast out by their immediate communities.
The lack of consensus among researchers suggests that the impacts of social media on mental health are both complex and dependent upon individual subjects. The American Psychological Association admits as much, as it currently notes that using social media is “neither inherently beneficial nor harmful,” and that the effect it has on individual minors is contextual. Television, candy and homework all have the potential to impact children’s development negatively, but part of parenting is knowing and working with your children to determine the right amount of each.
In terms of regulation, policymakers must shift away from the prevailing narrative that social media is inherently a dangerous medium that requires restriction. They also underestimate the resourcefulness of teens, who will find ways to subvert possible restrictions, and are also willfully short-sighted with respect to long-term digital advances. Furthermore, the literacy of legislators’ constituents will also begin to shift as more people raised with tech reach voting age. Policymakers certainly have a duty to protect children from harm. However, legislation such as the Kids Online Safety Act identify social media as de facto harmful, effectively ban social media for minors and prevent them from learning how to navigate it safely, and then leave them to fend for themselves as soon as they turn 16 or 18.
Policies that restrict access to social media will impede the development of younger people into safe, successful virtual citizens and could potentially hamper American competitiveness in a digital world. Those concerned about the effects of social media on young American minds should turn their attention instead toward digital literacy and internet safety education, preparing young people for the world rather than building a wall in the name of protection.
Unfortunately, many parents feel helpless in the fight against Big Tech’s supposed control over their children. However, screen time and parental control technology has never been more well-developed and integrated into devices. Better yet, the most prolific of these are both convenient and free: Apple’s Screen Time controls are built right into the iPhone and allow shockingly granular control over accessible apps and screen time.
Instagram and TikTok both have specific policies for minors that allow parental control and monitoring. Teen accounts on Instagram have a number of default safety settings, including automatic blocking of direct messaging from unconnected adults and the “less” filter for sensitive content. In March of this year, TikTok announced an automatic daily 60-minute time limit for all users under 18. Both apps also include screen time and comment controls that can be monitored by parents.
Parents have the ability to see and control who and what their children interact with on social media. They can also control whether their children have access to social media, a phone or internet in the first place. Helplessness among parents reflects, in part, a lapse in digital literacy across generations, and efforts to protect children and empower parents must seek to bridge this knowledge gap. This narrative that parents are helpless to stop social media from victimizing their children is far from reality.
Social media is this generation’s—and this Congress’s—new scapegoat. There is no effective consensus that social media has a net negative effect on mental health, but there are effective ways to control children’s access to it. Policies promoting heavy restrictions or bans on social media for young people represent an overreach of the government to control how parents raise their children and limit the potential of the next generation.
Michelle Wu was a Google policy fellow with R Street during the 2022-2023 academic year.