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Are smartphones and social media to blame for teen mental health crisis?

Young people are facing a mental health crisis, both here in Australia and internationally. There’s a concerning increase in the rates of mental health issues amongst young people and the finger is often pointed at technology, particularly social media and smartphones, which are contributing factors. But is technology to blame?

The dominant, alarmist narrative suggests that smartphones and social media are to blame for poor mental wellbeing amongst youth needs to be questioned. On the surface, it seems like a logical conclusion, given that the increase in mental health issues occurred around the same time social media and smartphones were being voraciously adopted amongst teens and young people.

However, I don’t think we can direct the blame solely at phones and social media.

In this blog post, I’m going to share my perspective, based on the data at hand and the anecdotal evidence I’ve aggregated from parents, teachers and health professionals working with young people. I’m going to propose that technology and social media are (in part) to blame for the decline in mental health in young people, but not in a direct causal fashion. Instead, I’m going to suggest that technology may be a contributing factor (one of many possible causes) because of the displacement effect. I’m going to suggest that young people’s basic psychological and physical needs are being shaped and displaced by technology and it’s this displacement effect that’s contributing to the decline in mental health.

So let’s start with what the research is telling us. Unfortunately, the data, at this stage, isn’t consistent and at times, contradictory. Available research presents a complex picture that defies simplistic conclusions. There’s research evidence that shows that technology can have an adverse impact on young people’s mental health. There’s also evidence to suggest that there are benefits to young people using smartphones and social media. And to further complicate matters, there’s also studies that show that there are indeed negative impacts associated with social media use and mental wellbeing, but these impacts are not as pronounced and significant as some would suggest. Aghh, so just who and what are we to believe?

As someone who regularly reads the latest studies on technology and its impact on health and wellbeing, I’m the first to admit that I’m perplexed and confused. There’s no clear cut answer at this stage. This isn’t a black and white issue. It’s a nuanced and complex topic. This is why blanket statements and headlines that suggest screens and social media are to blame for mental health issues are too simplistic.

 

Mental health crisis

We have headlines suggesting we’re at crisis levels-  The Crisis in Youth Suicide. Suicide rates amongst 10-24 year olds increased by 56% between 2007 and 2017 and it was far greater between 2013 and 2017 according to data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Data from the US revealed that there’s been an alarming increase in suicide attempts amongst 10-15 year olds, particularly girls, between 2011 and 2018.

As prolific users of technology, especially social media, attributing blame to these tools seems like a logical conclusion. Given the increasing rates and dates when increases in poorer mental health outcomes occurred, it would appear to correlate with the rapid adoption of digital technologies amongst young people. The widespread adoption of smartphones and social media did occur around the same time as mental health issues were becoming more pronounced and prevalent.

But are we prematurely jumping to conclusions? 

Young people are spending increasing amounts of time on social media with the Common Sense Media study showing that 70% of teens check social media several times a day1.  There’s little doubt that some social media experiences can have an adverse impact on young people’s mental health, if used in unhealthy or excessive ways- cyberbullying and negative, unhealthy body images are some of the obvious adverse impacts experienced by some young people online.

The argument that tech is to blame

Jean Twenge, a research psychologist from the University of San Diego claims that we have strong and consistent evidence that shows that young people’s tech habits explain the increase in mental health issues2. Others, who adopt Twenge’s hypothesis suggest that young people’s technology habits are both the cause and the cure to the youth mental health issues. Reduce or deny their access to technology and the corresponding mental health issues should, according to this logic, subside or decline.

However, Twenge’s research is sometimes criticised for the lack of scientific rigor in analysing the available data. Much of her work is based on correlational studies, not empirical studies that prove causation. There’s a BIG difference. Correlational studies don’t pinpoint causal factors- they identify relationships and connections.  So yes, there may be a relationship between social media use and mental health outcomes, but this doesn’t prove which way the directional arrow points. Is it that young people with mental health issues gravitate towards technology as a coping mechanism, or for other reasons? Or is social media and tech time actually causing mental health issues?  Twenge often acknowledges this limitation, but the media doesn’t report this limitation and the result is alarming media headlines and articles that imply that Twenge’s research indicates that technology, alone, is the root cause of poor mental health. It’s not that simple.

When we examine how social media behaviours correlate to mental health symptoms, research shows that there’s a connection between more time spent using social media and an increase in mental health symptoms3. It’s not simply a matter of if young people use social media, but more a matter of how much time they’re spending with it. In one study students in Year 8 who spent more than 10 hours/week on social media were 56% more likely to report being unhappy than those who spend less time4. Research also shows that when users are emotionally invested in social media it is also strongly correlated with higher levels of anxiety5. At this stage, it remains unclear as to whether social media is causing negative outcomes, or whether children with mental health issues are turning to social media to alleviate or manage their symptoms.

Arguments that suggest smartphones and social media
aren’t to blame

As I mentioned earlier, the research is conflicting and confusing. We also have studies that show that the impact of social media on young people’s mental health can have positive benefits6 and there are even studies that show that there are indeed negative impacts, but these impacts aren’t significant.

Andrew Przybylski, director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute, believes the dominant discourse where smartphones and social media are blamed for poor mental health outcomes lacks scientific evidence7. He proposes that there isn’t currently sufficient evidence to warrant the public panic.

It’s also difficult to draw broad conclusions from the available studies. We need more granular, nuanced discussions. For example, we know that young people with low social-emotional wellbeing experience more of the negative impacts of social media, than their peers8. The impact of various social media tools also differs- young people respond differently to and use various platforms in different ways, so it’s near-impossible to report on ‘social media’ in a broad sense. The findings of studies are often platform-specific and not necessarily generalisable.

Other studies have found no direct effects of digital technologies on teens’ rates of depression9. The net effect size of technology on wellbeing is almost zero, according to some researchers. Some researchers studying the impact of digital technologies and social media on teens’ mental health have concluded that there’s no evidence that technology directly impacts teens’ mental wellbeing. For example, Amy Orben from the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford along with her colleagues examined subjects in Ireland, UK, and the US. They concluded that “there is a small significant negative association between technology use and well-being, which—when compared with other activities in an adolescent’s life—is minuscule.” (p.693).  Similar studies indicate adolescents using more social media do not show different levels of mental wellbeing compared with teens spending less time on social media. Generally, these studies show the screens and social media do not affect their mood.

There’s consensus amongst researchers, parents, and practitioners that tech is very likely to be contributing to teens’ poor mental health in some capacity, even indirectly. However, exclusively blaming it is too simplistic and disregards the nuanced and complex conversation that we need to explore.

What’s being displaced?

My hypothesis, at this stage, is based on the available research and through my conversations with researchers, parents, educators and health professionals. I believe it’s the opportunity cost that technology presents to our young people, that may be (one of several) reasons why mental health outcomes are deteriorating in young people. When young people’s fundamental psychological and physical needs are not being adequately met, this can contribute to poor mental health. However, we must also acknowledge that there are other factors such as increasing school demands, overscheduled adolescence, academic pressure also contributing.

Young people are voracious technology users and these behaviours are bleeding into the time that was once available for their basic physical and psychological needs to be met- sleep, relationships, play, movement and boredom. Let’s explore some of these.

Sleep

Sleep is vital for mental wellbeing and emotional regulation10. Inadequate sleep can cause mental health issues11 (and the reverse holds true too- poor sleep can be an indicator of mental health issues). This is well established in the research literature. Studies show that many young people today aren’t getting adequate amounts of sleep. Studies are consistently showing that Australian children and teens aren’t getting sufficient amounts of sleep12 (and adults too).

The Lancet study, mentioned previously, suggested that nearly 60% of the impact on psychological distress could be accounted for by disrupted sleep and greater exposure to cyberbullying.

Technology is, again, a contributing factor to poor sleep quality and quantity. You can read more here about how digital devices can sabotage sleep.

Relationships

One of our most fundamental psychological needs is the need for relationships. We’re biologically wired for relational connection. We want to belong and connect. And whilst our young people may argue that technology connects them and caters for their relational needs (which it certainly can do when used appropriately and when used to complement real-life relationships), if used excessively or inappropriately (cyberbullying) it can compromise their relationships. 

Digital devices are superseding young people’s need for connection. Twenge claims that teens who spend a lot of time on social media are less likely to engage in real, in-person social interactions, which she claims, in turn, has harmful effects on their happiness level. They may feel lonely and possibly become less capable to cope with stress and anxieties. They need real, in-person, face-to-face conversations, in conjunction with social media and digital chats.  Research indicates that young people don’t value face-to-face communication in the way that they once did13.

They also need physical touch (and sadly, many young people report that they’re rarely touched- teachers are now forbidden to give a pat on the back, or a rub of the shoulders and often, many teens’ parents think that their teens don’t want to be touched). Young people need to feel like they belong and touching them gives them a tangible sense of this connectedness.

Technology certainly connects young people, but it also disconnects them (if used inappropriately or excessively). We have a global loneliness epidemic in teens (and adults too). In the UK they now have a minister for loneliness! Studies show that loneliness can be associated with depression, but it’s also associated with physical issues such as poor cardiovascular health. Feeling lonely can pose a bigger risk for premature death than smoking or obesity, according to research by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Brigham Young University in Utah, USA.

I’m also going to suggest here that it’s our tech behaviours, as parents, that may also be comprising the relationships we have with our young people. Are we giving them our fractured attention, between emails and social media scrolls? We need to prioritise our relationships with our young people. Even though they’re likely to say at some stage that you suck and you’re the worst parent (especially if you enforce tech rules), the reality is that they crave our connection and time. As Maggie Dent suggests, build “love bridges” with your young people through micromemnts of connection.

Physical Movement

Opportunities for physical movement are also being displaced by technology. Movement boosts serotonin and other neurotransmitters like dopamine that make young people feel good. Being active is vital for physical wellbeing and mental wellbeing too, even if the research shows that the gains are small to moderate14.

However, our young people’s digital behaviours and more sedentary lifestyles have reduced the physical activity levels in young people. 

Boredom

Many young people are tethered to technology for many of their waking hours. This certainly isn’t the case for all young people (we need to be careful about making sweeping generalisations about young people), but many young people acknowledge that they’re spending increasing amounts of time plugged in.  This erodes the time that may have once been spent being idle. Being bored! In a world of instant gratification, it’s easier than ever to avoid feeling bored.

However, moments of solitude are imperative for our wellbeing and performance. Young people need time by themselves to form their concept of self. In a digital world where they’re constantly consuming information (scrolling social media, watching YouTube or Netflix), there’s little opportunity to have moments of cognitive respite. Without this whitespace and intimate understanding of who they are, young people may be facing mental health issues.

Evidence is slowly emerging to suggest that it may be the opportunity cost of technology that’s harming young people’s mental health. Do we wait until there’s extensive, empirical research that ‘proves’ what’s contributing to poor mental health outcomes in young people? Absolutely not! We need to go back to ensuring that young people’s basic psychological and physical needs are being met. 

We also need to stop the parental fear and scare-mongering and reassure parents and educators that the dominant fears aren’t necessarily justified. We need to challenge the widespread belief that smartphones and social media are the root cause and start having more broad conversations about technology. We also need to look for ways to leverage the benefits smartphones and social media offer our young people, because the reality is that they’re here to stay. The doom-and-gloom, dominant discourse will hamper this discussion.

This is a topic Maggie Dent, Australia’s queen of common-sense parenting, and I tackled in a masterclass called Teens on Tech: Navigating the digital world together with your adolescent. You can access the masterclass replay and a collection of resources by clicking the image below.


References

1Rideout, V., and Robb, M. B. (2018). Social media, social life: Teens reveal their experiences. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media.
2 Twenge, J. M. (2017). iGen: Why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy — and completely unprepared for adulthood (and what this means for the rest of us). New York, NY: Atria Books
3Vannucci, A., Flannery, K. M., & Ohannessian, C. M. (2017). Social media use and anxiety in emerging adults. Journal of Affective Disorders, 207, 163– 166. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2016.08.040
4Twenge, J. M. (2017). iGen: Why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy — and completely unprepared for adulthood (and what this means for the rest of us). New York, NY: Atria Books
5
Woods, H. C., & Scott, H. (2016). #Sleepyteens: Social media use in adolescence is associated with poor sleep quality, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. Journal of Adolescence, 51, 41–49. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2016.05.008
6Rideout, V., and Robb, M. B. (2018). Social media, social life: Teens reveal their experiences. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media.
7https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190506151834.htm
8Rideout, V., and Robb, M. B. (2018). Social media, social life: Teens reveal their experiences. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media.
9https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jcpp.13190
10
Bartel K, Richardson C, Gradisar M. Sleep and mental wellbeing: exploring the links. Melbourne: Victorian Health Promotion Foundation; 2018. 21.
Quon EC, Ellis AT, Coulombe A. Sleep-related issues in children and adolescents presenting at community mental health clinics. J Can Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2018;27(3):175-81.
11
McMakin DL, Alfano CA. Sleep and anxiety in late childhood and early adolescence. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2015;28(6):483-9. 29.
Blake MJ, Trinder JA, Allen NB. Mechanisms underlying the association between insomnia, anxiety, and depression in adolescence: implications for behavioral sleep interventions. Clin Psychol Rev. 2018;63:25-40. 30.
Lovato N, Gradisar M. A meta-analysis and model of the relationship between sleep and depression in adolescents: recommendations for future research and clinical practice. Sleep Med Rev. 2014;18(6):521-9.
12http://www3.aifs.gov.au/institute/media/docs/r1GpIwOaS7tS/LSAC-ASR-2018-Chap4-sleep.pdf
13Rideout, V., and Robb, M. B. (2018). Social media, social life: Teens reveal their experiences. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media.
14Biddle, S. J., & Asare, M. (2011). Physical activity and mental health in children and adolescents: a review of reviews. British journal of sports medicine, 45(11), 886-895.

 

 

 

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I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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