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Is Social Media Putting Kids' Mental Health at Risk?

In my experience, if you ask someone if they believe social media is bad for mental health, there’s a high chance they’ll say yes. It seems like most people believe it’s obvious, so why are we still debating it? Why are scientists still trying to prove it?

Social media has not been proven to cause poor mental health. It can take decades of research to prove causation. Because there is not a universal acknowledgement of the way social media impacts mental health, there is a significant lack of resources and education having to do with the intersection between the two.

Other substances that give the user hits of dopamine are severely regulated, and even restricted, by the government, resulting in serious legal consequences for breaking those rules. In school, children are educated on the dangers of these substances, and the way they can harm your body and alter your life.

Studies have shown that excessive social media use has a similar effect on the brain as repeated drug and alcohol usage. Our government has restrictions in place for drugs and alcohol to prevent underage consumption. Adolescents are four times more vulnerable to addictive behaviors, and that is why these substances that create addiction are so dangerous.

The feeling of validation and affirmation that a teen receives from likes or reactions on social media posts can literally change the chemistry of their brain and disrupt their nervous system. It’s not comparable to receiving a compliment from a friend; online affirmation is just one of the ways that social media gives the user hits of dopamine that make it so addictive.

Research shows these effects, and studies show correlation between time spent on social media and symptoms of depression and anxiety. But unlike other substances that have been around for tens, even thousands of years, social media has been in existence for barely a decade, making its effects practically unknown.

Everything we do know has been the result of short-term studies or surveys, both extremely susceptible to bias and error. We can’t see the long-term effects, let alone prove them. But anyone who has children or works with them can see that the effect is significant, and possibly dangerous.

In 2021, whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former data scientist at what was called Facebook at the time, copied thousands of pages of confidential documents showing the harms that this company knows they are causing. After sharing them with lawmakers, regulators, and The Wall Street Journal, the newspaper published an extensive series of reports known as “The Facebook Files.”

Haugen said that Facebook harms children and democracy. A significant portion of the Facebook Files showed the data proving this, specifically that teenage girls are disproportionately affected by Instagram.

Facebook's internal studies found that Instagram makes body images worse for 1 in 3 teen girls, and “more than 40% of Instagram users who reported feeling “unattractive” said the feeling began on the app”.

These self-confidence issues make way for much larger problems. “For some people it might be tempting to dismiss this as teen girls being sad,” said Dr. Jean Twenge, a professor of Psychology at San Diego State University who has published research finding social media is harmful for some children. She continues, however, that this leads to “clinical-level depression that requires treatment. We’re talking about self harm that lands people in the ER.”

According to an Instagram research manager, kids “often feel ‘addicted’ and know that what they’re seeing is bad for their mental health but feel unable to stop themselves.”

This is just a glimpse at the plethora of data that the Facebook Files uncovered showing not only that social media harms children, but that the companies have found this to be true and only continue to create more addictive features on the app.

These files are perhaps the most significant proof to date of the harms of social media, and they were released over two years ago. Recently we have seen more discussion around the topic, with the American Psychological Association releasing a social media health advisory and the U.S. Surgeon General publishing and extensive statement detailing the harms of this technology and calling policy makers, educators, and parents to action.

We are still on the cusp of this technology. Social media is a new and relatively unknown beast, and we are behind in universally acknowledging its threat to mental health. The discussions are beginning to give way to more change, but we still have a long way to go.

I have painted a grim picture here, if only in an attempt to grasp the complexity that is the relationship between social media and mental health. It is a broad and unclear topic. No one is left unaffected; far be it from me to claim that adolescents are the only ones struggling.

But they are the first of humanity to experience it as their brains are forming. And although we can’t prove causation, we can provide tools that mitigate further harm by establishing boundaries and encouraging a rhetoric of digital well-being.

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