Vivek Murthy, the US Surgeon General, just released an advisory on the dangers to teen mental health that social media poses.
CNN reports, “While noting some benefits of the online platforms, the report warns of increasing concern and ‘ample indicators’ that social media can have ‘a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.’ The 19-page report acknowledges that further research is needed and that online youth well-being is shaped by many complex factors, including screen time, content, and countless strengths and vulnerabilities of individual users.’”
There have been warnings about this crisis for over a decade. According to NPR, psychologist Jean Twenge looked at mental health metrics around 2012 and was shocked: “Rates of depression, anxiety, and loneliness were rising. And [Twenge] had a hypothesis for the cause: smartphones and all the social media that comes along with them. ‘Smartphones were used by the majority of Americans around 2012, and that’s the same time loneliness increases. That’s very suspicious,’ she wrote in The Atlantic in 2017.”
Well, I’m not so sure. Twenge also said that “22% of 10th-grade girls spend seven or more hours a day on social media.” That does sound like an alarming statistic, but it also means that over three-quarters of 10th-grade girls didn’t.
Other stats are similarly suspect. For example, “Teen social media use has skyrocketed in recent years. The rise in tech use coincides with rising rates of anxiety, depression, and loneliness.” This may be true, but it’s a far cry from saying that the rise in social media use causes the rising rates of mental distress. Throughout the years, everything from comic books to rock and roll to video games has been said to cause ills from teen violence to drug use to sexual deviancy. But correlation — the fact that two things happened around the same time — does not equal causation — that the one circumstance causes the other.
Similarly, “A study — considered one of the best to date on the subject — found an uptick in mental health issues after Facebook arrived on college campuses.” Even though it was thought to be one of the best, there were flaws in it (only lasting four weeks, for example), and once again, it suffers from the…