is social media really behind an epidemic of teenage mental illness?

by ARKANSAS DIGITAL NEWS

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A teenage girl lies on the bed in her room lightened with orange and teal neon lights and watches a movie on her mobile phone.

Social-media platforms aren’t always social.Credit: Getty

The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness Jonathan Haidt Allen Lane (2024)

Two things need to be said after reading The Anxious Generation. First, this book is going to sell a lot of copies, because Jonathan Haidt is telling a scary story about children’s development that many parents are primed to believe. Second, the book’s repeated suggestion that digital technologies are rewiring our children’s brains and causing an epidemic of mental illness is not supported by science. Worse, the bold proposal that social media is to blame might distract us from effectively responding to the real causes of the current mental-health crisis in young people.

Haidt asserts that the great rewiring of children’s brains has taken place by “designing a firehose of addictive content that entered through kids’ eyes and ears”. And that “by displacing physical play and in-person socializing, these companies have rewired childhood and changed human development on an almost unimaginable scale”. Such serious claims require serious evidence.

Haidt supplies graphs throughout the book showing that digital-technology use and adolescent mental-health problems are rising together. On the first day of the graduate statistics class I teach, I draw similar lines on a board that seem to connect two disparate phenomena, and ask the students what they think is happening. Within minutes, the students usually begin telling elaborate stories about how the two phenomena are related, even describing how one could cause the other. The plots presented throughout this book will be useful in teaching my students the fundamentals of causal inference, and how to avoid making up stories by simply looking at trend lines.

Hundreds of researchers, myself included, have searched for the kind of large effects suggested by Haidt. Our efforts have produced a mix of no, small and mixed associations. Most data are correlative. When associations over time are found, they suggest not that social-media use predicts or causes depression, but that young people who already have mental-health problems use such platforms more often or in different ways from their healthy peers1.

These are not just our data or my opinion. Several meta-analyses and systematic reviews converge on the same message25. An analysis done in 72 countries shows no consistent or measurable associations between well-being and the roll-out of social media globally6. Moreover, findings from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study, the largest long-term study of adolescent brain development in the United States, has found no evidence of drastic changes associated with digital-technology use7. Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, is a gifted storyteller, but his tale is currently one searching for evidence.

Of course, our current understanding is incomplete, and more research is always needed. As a psychologist who has studied children’s and adolescents’ mental health for the past 20 years and tracked their well-being and digital-technology use, I appreciate the frustration and desire for simple answers. As a parent of adolescents, I would also like to identify a simple source for the sadness and pain that this generation is reporting.

A complex problem

There are, unfortunately, no simple answers. The onset and development of mental disorders, such as anxiety and depression, are driven by a complex set of genetic and environmental factors. Suicide rates among people in most age groups have been increasing steadily for the past 20 years in the United States. Researchers cite access to guns, exposure to violence, structural discrimination and racism, sexism and sexual abuse, the opioid epidemic, economic hardship and social isolation as leading contributors8.

The current generation of adolescents was raised in the aftermath of the great recession of 2008. Haidt suggests that the resulting deprivation cannot be a factor, because unemployment has gone down. But analyses of the differential impacts of economic shocks have shown that families in the bottom 20% of the income distribution continue to experience harm9. In the United States, close to one in six children live below the poverty line while also growing up at the time of an opioid crisis, school shootings and increasing unrest because of racial and sexual discrimination and violence.

The good news is that more young people are talking openly about their symptoms and mental-health struggles than ever before. The bad news is that insufficient services are available to address their needs. In the United States, there is, on average, one school psychologist for every 1,119 students10.

Haidt’s work on emotion, culture and morality has been influential; and, in fairness, he admits that he is no specialist in clinical psychology, child development or media studies. In previous books, he has used the analogy of an elephant and its rider to argue how our gut reactions (the elephant) can drag along our rational minds (the rider). Subsequent research has shown how easy it is to pick out evidence to support our initial gut reactions to an issue. That we should question assumptions that we think are true carefully is a lesson from Haidt’s own work. Everyone used to ‘know’ that the world was flat. The falsification of previous assumptions by testing them against data can prevent us from being the rider dragged along by the elephant.

A generation in crisis

Two things can be independently true about social media. First, that there is no evidence that using these platforms is rewiring children’s brains or driving an epidemic of mental illness. Second, that considerable reforms to these platforms are required, given how much time young people spend on them. Many of Haidt’s solutions for parents, adolescents, educators and big technology firms are reasonable, including stricter content-moderation policies and requiring companies to take user age into account when designing platforms and algorithms. Others, such as age-based restrictions and bans on mobile devices, are unlikely to be effective in practice — or worse, could backfire given what we know about adolescent behaviour.

A third truth is that we have a generation in crisis and in desperate need of the best of what science and evidence-based solutions can offer. Unfortunately, our time is being spent telling stories that are unsupported by research and that do little to support young people who need, and deserve, more.

Competing Interests

The author declares no competing interests.

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