Is it fair to blame social media for teen mental health?

The 360 ​​gives you multiple perspectives on the headlines and debates of the day.

What’s up

Rates of depression and suicidal thoughts among American teens increased dramatically between 2011 and 2021 — particularly among girls and children who don’t identify as straight — according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC’s report is the latest evidence of a serious teen mental health crisis in the United States, which has been worsening over the past decade. In the eyes of some psychologists and lawmakers, social media is to blame.

Today’s teenagers, with smartphones in their pockets, spend far more time online than any previous generation. Almost all say they use the internet every day, and nearly half use it “almost constantly,” according to a Pew poll last year. Most of this time is spent on social platforms like YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram and to a lesser extent Facebook.

Last month, Seattle public schools sued several major social media companies, accusing them of exploiting the “vulnerable brains of youth” for profit. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has announced plans to file a similar lawsuit. Several members of Congress have sponsored legislation that would impose new guard rails on children’s use of social media, with some calling for a legal minimum age for users.

Why is there a debate

There is a tremendous amount of evidence, including academic research and testimonies from children themselves, that today’s youth struggle with mental health. But the question of how much social media is to blame is far from clear.

Many experts argue that social media is clearly the root cause of the teenage mental health crisis. They argue that the constant use of social media fuels feelings of inadequacy, isolation, anxiety, stress and sadness among American youth. Instagram, for example, has come under fire for promoting accounts about eating disorders to young girls.

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These platforms are designed to maximize the time spent on them, with algorithms serving users endless targeted content. There are concerns that the sheer amount of time children spend online means they are missing out on personal experiences that would boost their mental health.

The story goes on

But others say the teenage health story isn’t that simple. They argue that there are so many other factors causing stress in teens’ lives – including the pandemic, political tensions, mass shootings and fears of climate change – that it’s impossible to isolate the impact of social media alone. Some experts argue that overuse of social media may ultimately prove to be a symptom of mental health problems rather than a cause.

What’s next

Social media companies are increasingly aware of their impact on young people and have made efforts to restrict some forms of content. However, it’s not clear if the company’s efforts or new regulations will have a significant impact on teens’ mental health.


We are just beginning to understand how disastrous social media is for today’s children

“For a time, Big Tobacco enjoyed immense profits and great popularity. But eventually the companies were held accountable. We live in a moment where we are just beginning to learn about the social and psychological harm of social media.” — Jean M. Twenge, Clare Morell and Brad Wilcox, Deseret News

Treating social media as the bogeyman of mental health means that the real causes are not addressed

“In the name of ‘the kids’, people have been freaking out about new arts and technologies for centuries, and social media platforms are just the latest target. And while there is likely to be a mental health emergency, this moral panic allows politicians to divert attention from the more complex causes of the problem while leaving children unhelped.” – Trevor Burrus and Nicole Saad Bembridge, The Hill

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Kids who grew up on social media never learned how to navigate life in the real world

“In short, yes, social media can have negative consequences for our mental health. The younger generation grew up with social media and the ability to see anything anytime, anywhere. Our ability to endure the agony of waiting has eroded because we can google the answer to almost any question.” — Jessica Holzbauer, mental health researcher

Social media is nothing more than a medium for teenagers to express how they feel about the world

“Linking social media and mental health is a powerful political talking point, but an oversimplification. … Social media use can be an indicator of mental health problems, but it is not the cause. The positive and negative effects of social media come from how you use it.” — Nick Hurzeler, Salt Lake Tribune

Every hour you spend online means missing out on more fulfilling experiences

“Even for children who do not suffer from mental health problems, the time they spend on social media each day has clearly replaced other, healthier social activities for children.” – Christine Rosen, National Review

We live in very stressful times, which put a particularly heavy strain on young people

“Taking that step back, we can see that the real causes lie in a stress pandemic that affects all but is of particular concern in the case of adolescents who are in a highly sensitive developmental transition.” – Daniel P. Keating, Psychology Today

Online relationships do not meet the needs of growing children

“Teens log on to social media or spend time online to socialize but end up feeling lonelier and sadder than ever. Not only does faceless communication create a sense of isolation and loneliness, but on the contrary increases rates of cyberbullying, vulnerability to sex trafficking and more.” — Nicole Russell, Newsweek

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Social media may be harmless to most, but actually harmful to a small number of children

“Social media is not like rat poison, which is toxic to almost everyone. It’s more like alcohol: a mildly addictive substance that can improve social situations, but can also lead to addiction and depression in a minority of users.” – Derek Thompson, The Atlantic

Social media bombards young people with messages fueling their fear and sadness

“Previous generations had to pick up a book or play a record to define the vague desperation they felt. It took effort to have some introspection – something that is healthy in small doses. Now kids have doomscrolling and information overload on demand.” — Kirsten Fleming, New York Post

Social media is extremely complex – and so is its impact

“If we only talk about social media, we combine all kinds of experiences into a homogeneous hodgepodge, making it lose any kind of meaning. …Is going on TikTok and watching videos the same as direct message a friend to ask for help with something? These are very different experiences.” — David Bickham, media researcher, on EdSurge

Denying teens access to social media would do incredible harm

“It is undoubtedly true that some overuse of social media is unhealthy among some teenage users. … [But] It does not follow that denying millions of young people any access to social media would be a boon for teen mental health. On the contrary, abruptly shutting down the internet would be a great way to make a whole lot of kids miserable.” – Robby Soave, Sanity

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Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; Photos: Getty Images (2)