Journalists should stop saying that the evidence is just correlational
Bravo! Thank you for your persistence on this topic.
I understand that it’s the nature of academia (and possibly also the nature of denial?), and that it is better to have more and more evidence, but part of me also rolls my eyes at your opponents in this debate. We’re not talking about marginal benefits of one formula brand vs another, we’re talking a Gutenberg level revolution in how we think and relate to the world and each other - and yet still some people play dumb and think it can’t possibly be a big deal. Thank you for having the patience to continue engaging the holdouts!
This is a very important topic and thank you Jon Haidt for covering it. But please don’t forget, in the first place, you need to educate yourself and not children. Kids should be kids. Most family problems are born in the parents mindset of not being ready to take on certain responsibilities that come with children. Start with yourself and your kids will be just fine! Good luck to everyone and be more attentive to your children, spend time with them and communicate! Ask about their experiences, and not only think about your own.
The writer Freddie deBoer has examined the trend of "mental health chic" in social media extensively. where influencers adopt a mental illness as a centrally defining characteristic and use that as the basis for attracting followers. His fear was that it not only romanticized mental illness but set up echo chambers that were ripe for the spread of social contagion. I have to wonder if there is a correlation between adverse mental health outcomes in girls versus the type of social media they are consuming.
This article dropped just after I finished reading a book review of The Geography Of Madness on another substack and it made me wonder: what if this epidemic of mental disorders in the demographic most susceptible to social contagion is the result of social media amplifying the mental illness awareness and acceptance campaigns that have proliferated in the last few years?
Basically, knowledge of mental disorders might be an infohazard for many teenage girls and other susceptible people.
What I find missing from these discussions is the “content” of social media. If kids are being fed a toxic stew of bad ideas about themselves, others, and the nature of humans and society, perhaps the message is indeed at least as important as the medium.
Thank you! You are unique among researchers in taking a forceful stance and demonstrating that social media use truly is poisonous. I have witnessed first-hand how girls who have grown up in healthy homes, connected to nature, and a healthy sense of self, can fall into the abyss of depression and self harm because of the soul-killing endless scroll of fraudulent bodies and faces. Our daughter did not have a phone until she was 16 -and you point out clearly that abstinence amidst a sea of social media users can be just as isolating. We have found that there is hope for a healthy outcome, although it must be won by teenagers themselves. If group of committed teenagers reject this poison in unison, growing their real life relationships through face to face conversations, common physical activities, and time spent together outdoors, etc. they have a fighting chance to evade the harms that befall so many of their cohort. See my article "TikTok brain cure with three ingredients" for more .https://humanitasfamily.substack.com/p/tiktok-brain-cure-with-three-ingredients.
Good post, especially the point about how we should look beyond dose effects. One thought to add: "Boys are doing badly too, but their rates of depression and anxiety are not as high." But their rates of suicide are about four times as high, as are their rates of drug overdose. Women and girls are more likely to express distress in culturally recognized idioms of abnormality in need of treatment -- in traditional societies, spiritual possession, in modern societies, eating disorders, depression, etc. Males are more likely to turn straight to violence and reckless behavior.
'Long-time listener, first-time caller'. Jonathan, I've been following your work on this topic for a few years now and regularly refer to your google docs to stay up to date on where this is. Commenting to say thank you for a couple of things:
1. Making the work you're doing so public, available to be scrutinised, and open to reactions and criticism. It must vastly improve the progress we make on this topic.
2. Showing progression in terms of how researchers who once stood on opposite sides of an issue are being drawn together because of objective views of the data. (Would love to know if Andy P is moving in your direction too, as Amy Orben appears to be.)
3. While I'm a (lapsed) academic researcher, I love how gently you guide readers through the literature review you've done in a way that makes everything so accessible and understandable.
There is so much work involved in what you're doing. Your methodical, analytical, scientific approach without hyperbole is so very much appreciated.
Would love to see you address they 'why' around this (my bias is along a self-determination theory perspective, where social media provides a thin level of need satisfaction - in the same way pringles provide a thin level of hunger satisfaction), and also what parents can do while we wait/agitate for change at a policy level (that may never come).
Here's an interesting quantitative connection: If causal, the r=0.2 correlation in Orben & Przybylski's own data would *fully explain* explain the 50% increase in teen girl depression. You can see that with some back-of-the envelope calculations and the simplest possible assumptions https://chris-said.io/2022/05/10/social-media-and-teen-depression/. Unfortunately, many social scientists haven't made that quantitative connection and continue to view those correlations as "small".
Of course, the correlation may not be fully causal, but as Jonathan said it is plausible that network effects make up for the rest.
We know that, over the past 150 years since anyone began tracking it, that age at menarche has been declining. It occurs earlier in developed nations than developing ones, and within nations earlier among those in higher socioeconomic groups than lower ones, leading many to infer that it is connected to nutritional levels. But reaching some milestone in physical maturity is not equivalent to reaching psychological milestones. One has to wonder if there are synergistic effects of aggregate nudging towards earlier maturation and whatever impact electronic media may have on the developing young adolescent and tween. Despite a number of happy years in limbic function research, I prefer not to view physical maturation or hormones as a "cause" of anything. Rather, they provide a context within which social experience is framed/perceived by the individual and those around them. If your body and your phone "tells" you you're older than you feel and are ready for, that has to be unsettling. No less so than having a baby at 17, or having a health issue force you to retire at 53.
Very interesting, thank you. I understand that the questions are focused on teens, but I wondered what happens when these teenage girls become adults? Do the mental ill health symptoms persist, even if social media use goes down as they settle into adult life and begin families etc?
I work in mental health, specifically with kids/teens. I cannot overstate how much I appreciate the work you do (not to mention Twenge and the the dozens/hundreds of other researchers working in this subject area). One question I have: How much does a smartphone's ability to distract, in general, influence a young person's capacity for distress tolerance and coping? We have a toddler. In several parenting/childhood development texts, there is a broad recommendation to not "swoop in" when a young child is struggling and immediately distract him/her away from their distress. If a toy is frustrating them, the idea-as-I-understand-it goes, we should allow them to experience that frustration for some amount of time before offering assistance. It would be less helpful to that child in the long-term if I were to immediately interrupt their experience of frustration by offering a different toy, or a snack, or to scoop the kid up and hug them, etc. This makes sense to me. At some point, we have to learn that the daily variety of frustration and disappointment are hard, but not fatal, and we CAN tolerate those emotions, experience them and come out the other end alive, eventually learning to respond in ways that are adaptive and healthy. My initial question is inspired by the overall very low capacity for distress tolerance I see in the kids I work with, regardless of demographics or specific life experiences. To me, it would make sense that by having a phone in your pocket at a young age, any moment of distress, worry, boredom, etc. is extremely easy to interrupt. You can instantly distract yourself away from those less-than-pleasant emotions. But as we know, that technique does not work well forever. Eventually, we have to pay the piper, so to speak, and reckon with that stockpile of emotions that we are consistently distracting ourselves away from acknowledging (I have done this as an adult, frankly). All of that said: I don't know if this idea rings true to researchers who work more closely in this field, let alone if there are specific studies on this topic. Haha, I don't even know if a study focused on this question is even feasible, such is my limited experience in the world of research. Anyway, thanks again and I will continue to follow your writing and work for the duration of my career in mental health!
>Each girl might be worse off quitting Instagram even though all girls would be better off if everyone quit.
How about a "device-free" summer camp? Let teens have fun with other teens in nature, without any devices to distract them. That could help overcome the collective action problem.
I think randomly assigning kids to such a camp could be a powerful way to test the hypotheses advanced in this article. It lasts all summer, so it should address the immediate discomfort from going "cold turkey". And you spend all your time with other young people who are also free from their devices, so that should help with the network effects problem. If experimental results from the camp are good, it should be easy to scale up as an effective mental health treatment for young people, or (for themed summer camps) an extracurricular learning environment of the sort you can put on your college application.
Helicopter parents can call the main camp hotline (instead of their child's personal phone) if they want to make sure their kid is OK. Or put an old-fashioned land line in every cabin and tell kids they can call parents before going to sleep.
I'll bet we get more traction out of summer camps than shaking our fists at tech companies, at least. Let the tech companies and the summer camp companies battle it out for themselves ;-)
Great article! I have a question: How do we know that there isn't some bicausal nature to this relationship; that depressed and anxious teens turn to social media more often, not that the latter causes the former necessarily?
This is great. To help readers evaluate the studies, in the absence of a formal synthesis, it would be really helpful to have a spreadsheet with things like:
--sample size (or cell size)
--study design (correlational, experimental, etc.)
--experimental manipulation (if applicable)
--control condition (active or passive)
--if correlational, were important covariates included?
--were results reported without unexpected covariates?
--was the study hypothesis/analysis preregistered?
Then we could more easily see if the studies that find effects are high quality overall (and perhaps better quality than those that don't find effects). Otherwise, it's possible that publication bias is a factor, particularly in the case of experiments because failing to find an effect could happen for uninteresting reasons.
I feel like I should say something that adds to the conversation, but... all I can think is... "well, duh!!"
"We are now 11 years into the largest epidemic of teen mental illness on record."
Yeah.... that's what happens when you glorify mental illness. This much should have been obvious a long time ago.