Technology and teen mental health: are the fears unfounded?

Image description: a young woman sitting on a couch with a MacBook on her lap and an iPhone next to her.

TW: this article discusses mental health issues, including mentions of suicide and suicidal thoughts.

Shocking headlines such as “Instagram ‘helped kill my daughter’” (BBC) and “Mum’s torment over suicide of her Snapchat addict daughter, 15” (Mirror) seem to make the news daily. And with rates of teen mental health issues continuing to rise, it’s clear why parents are fearful of the impact of social media on young people.

It’s not just news stories that highlight these concerns. Research from the Education Policy Institute and The Prince’s Trust found that heavy social media use in teens was linked to negative effects on wellbeing and self-esteem. These findings echo a similar study’s conclusion that people with greater technology engagement tend to report greater mental health problems, ostensibly confirming the detrimental impact of social media on mental health.

The current fears about social media are not new – for decades, society has been worried about how new technologies may be affecting the minds of young people. Before the internet it was video games, and before video games it was TV. Even radio was once thought to make young people vulnerable to illness and anxiety. Astonishingly, paediatrician Mary Preston published an article in 1941 stating that children consumed radio dramas “much as a chronic alcoholic does drink.”

But social media seems to be creating even greater alarm, partly due to the rapid emergence of new sites and their increasingly immersive nature. Moreover, the lack of regulation and policies to protect young people online has led many to assume that social media today is much more harmful than it has ever been before.

To test this assumption, researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute used data collected from over 430,000 10- to 15-year-olds to investigate the link between technology use and mental health problems. Specifically, they wanted to know how this association has changed over time, and whether technology is now more harmful to young people than it was in previous decades.

Even radio was once thought to make young people vulnerable to illness and anxiety. Astonishingly, paediatrician Mary Preston published an article in 1941 stating that children consumed radio dramas “much as a chronic alcoholic does drink”.

Their findings, published this month in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, contradicted many people’s fears. Although there was a small increase in the association between social media use and emotional issues such as anger management, the effect of social media or device use on depression and suicidal thoughts and tendencies has stayed surprisingly stable in recent years. In fact, the link between the time teens spend watching TV and depression has been falling steadily since 2010, with television now having an almost negligible effect on mental health.

“We’re not saying that fewer happy people use more social media,” Professor Andrew Przybylski, co-author of the Oxford study, told the BBC, “we’re saying that the connection is not getting stronger.”

This news may have come as a surprise to many parents who can see the detrimental effect social media is having on their children. However, researchers have pointed out that the connection is not as simple as it looks.

“It’s not a vacuum, it works both ways,” says Dr Amy Orben, another author of the study, “those who feel worse may turn to social media for solace or community.”

For many people, online communities provide a safe space for them to express themselves, share interests, or communicate with others. In fact, one study showed that mental health issues predict smartphone usage, not the other way round, suggesting people turn to social media to help them feel better. Moreover, the recent rise in high-profile influencers, including Love Island’s Dr Alex George (who was recently appointed a youth mental health ambassador), promoting wellbeing on platforms such as TikTok and Instagram may be helping their young fans.

Maybe, then, it’s time to change the way we think about social media and how it affects our mental health. The current view of ‘screen time’ as the root of the problem not only ignores the potential benefits it can have, but may even be preventing us from discovering the real issues.

In 2019, Prof Przybylski and Dr Orben published a study that found little evidence that the amount of time teenagers spend on devices affects their wellbeing. At the time, Przybylski said: “Parents shouldn’t worry about time on social media – thinking about it that way is wrong […] we are fixated on time, but we need to retire this notion of screen time.”

Instead, researchers and clinicians have pointed out that we should be studying how we use social media, not just the time we spend doing so. For example, actively engaging in social media, such as by posting or liking photos, may have different effects on our mental health than passively scrolling. Different platforms also vary in their perceived impact on mental health, with Instagram rated as being the worst for anxiety, depression and body image in 12- to 24-year-olds. Thus, studies that simply look at the time we spend on social media may not be getting the full picture on how it may be driving mental health issues.

An added complication is the indirect effect technology is having on mental health. Researchers have argued that it’s not the time teens spend on social media per se, but the ways in which this can detract from healthy habits such as sleep and exercise. Russell Viner, a professor at UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, told the BBC in 2019 that parents should be less concerned about their children’s social media use, “but they should worry about how much physical activity and sleep they’re getting, because social media is displacing other things.”

Maybe, then, it’s time to change the way we think about social media and how it affects our mental health.

In fact, Prof Przybylski has previously stated that only a “trivial” proportion of the wellbeing of teenagers comes down to social media, with exercise, sleep and time with family and friends having a much greater impact on their life satisfaction.

Of course, most social media sites are simply too new for us to fully understand their impact on long-term mental health. Even estimates based on older generations, for whom social media appeared when they were already teenagers or adults, may not be able to predict its impact on children who grew up with smartphones and constant internet access.

These studies are also limited by their heavy reliance on self-reported data of social media use. In fact, a 2016 study found that over a quarter of people underestimate their weekly internet usage, while almost half overestimate it. Hence, the current evaluations of the links between social media use and mental health may be far from accurate. Experts are therefore calling for social media companies to be more open with their data to help scientists and policy-makers better understand how young people use social media.

Social media may well be contributing to declining teen mental health, but despite huge technological advancements over the last decade, its impact on adolescent wellbeing has remained surprisingly stable. However, this is a complicated issue, and simply reducing screen time is not going to stop the unfurling mental health crisis. We need more research into how we use social media, what we see, and how we interact with others to better understand how it is impacting our wellbeing, and we need companies and governments alike to put in place measures to protect the mental health of young people.

Image credit: Steinar Engeland on Unsplash