IRVINE, Calif. — A Facebook whistleblower recently testified on the basis of protecting kids online, but the bigger question remains: is social media the main issue affecting their mental health? Some evidence proves it’s certainly not.
When there is a problem with something as important as adolescent mental health, it’s easy to blame social media. It's an entirely new entity to the current generation and their parents. It’s what’s happening after the Facebook whistleblower came forward with inside information.
Candice Odgers is a professor of psychological science at the University of California Irvine.
“And so people have been treating it really as a smoking gun in terms of a big secret or evidence that social media is really harming young people," Odgers said.
For parents, the reporting is scary. Facebook data showed 6% of U.S. teens with suicidal thoughts traced them to Instagram, according to documents first published in the Wall Street Journal. A separate internal survey found, quote, "Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression. This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups."
“Since 2007, social media has exploded and the question of what role does digital tech play in the lives of teens has become at the forefront of parents, educators, people who are watching this happening," Odgers said.
According to Odgers research, the vast majority of teens say they are "addicted to" or "harmed by" social media or their phones. Kaitlyn Tollefson is one of them.
“There are several social media apps that I’ve had to delete, just on the pure basis of how toxic they are. It’s kind of like a common rule I guess not to go into the comment sections of some apps just because there is so much hate and it can really bring down your mental health," Tollefson said.
But Tollefson also knows it comes with a lot of positives that are ingrained into her generation.
“Immediately, I recognized I can’t make very many friends at all without having social media because it’s the main way that people stay communicating," Tollefson said.
Odgers' research backs that up. She says it's not about banning technology, but teaching kids how to live with it responsibly and the burden starts with the people in charge.
“We need to design in a way that recognizes one in three internet users are under the age of 18. We haven’t designed these spaces in ways that are productive for them," Odgers said. "But turning around and shifting the blame on social media fully, it’s not supported by the science right now and it really could do more harm than good.”
Odgers is part of a team that used cutting-edge technology to monitor teens' behavior and mood. She claims her team can spot signs of mental health problems without asking people to self-diagnose.
“So, you go through and we record through wearable devices, things about their sleep, if we link their administrative test records, if we do psychological assessments, we find very few linkages between time spent or type of media use and mental health problems or health problems. So this was surprising to us and to many others but I think it’s important because right now we're thinking, 'OK, we found the culprit.' You know, we’re all concerned about depression and anxiety among young people. If we can just turn off the social media, if we can get the phones out of their hands, we can solve this problem that is scary that is taking young people’s lives," Odgers said.
Tollefson knows that firsthand. She’s proud to be someone who sees a therapist for mental health.
“We need to figure out how we can get mental health care more accessible so we can help these kids and teens deal with the stressors of social media and everyday life," Tollefson said.