Teenage girls’ mental health has a proven link to social media use

The link between teenage girls’ mental health and social media use isn’t just correlative, argues an NYU Stern professor: There’s now solid evidence that it’s causal.

The argument coincides with the European Union’s banning of TikTok from official devices after similar steps were taken in the US…

For many years, scientists have argued that while there is a link between teenage girls’ mental health and their use of social media, this does not necessarily mean that it is caused by the apps’ use. They also found that the degree of correlation is rather low.

However, John Haidt, a professor of social psychology at NYU-Stern, writes that there is now much better evidence of a causal relationship.

The scale of the growing problem cannot be denied.

The CDC’s biannual Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed that most teenage girls (57%) now say they experience persistent sadness or hopelessness (up from 36% in 2011), and 30% of teenage girls now say they do they have seriously considered suicide (up from 19% in 2011). Boys are also doing poorly, but their rates of depression and anxiety are not as high and their increase since 2011 is smaller.

However, in the past it has been said that proving cause and effect is very difficult.

For example, Derek Thompson, one of my favorite data-driven journalists, wrote a widely read essay in The Atlantic on the myriad of possible causes. In a section titled Why is it so hard to prove that social media and smartphones are destroying teens’ mental health? Noting that “the scholarly literature on the harms of social media is complicated,” he then quoted one of the key scholars studying the topic – Jeff Hancock of Stanford University: “There were absolutely hundreds of [social-media and mental-health] Studies, almost all of which show fairly small effects.”

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That’s no longer the case, says Haidt.

In this post, I will show that Thompson’s skepticism was justified in 2019, but not Hancock and I in 2023). There is now much evidence that social media is a major cause, and not just a minute correlate, of depression and anxiety, and therefore of behaviors related to depression and anxiety, including self-harm and suicide.

He provides evidence from a large-scale (n=19,000) study.

Impossible to justify the long paper in a short synopsis, but as an example…

The piece states that a lot of research looks at all digital media usage, including things like watching Netflix. When you specifically isolate social media apps, the data passes statistical tests to demonstrate causality.

The Collaborative Review document that Jean Twenge, Zach Rausch, and I put together collects more than a hundred correlational, longitudinal, and experimental studies on both sides of the question. Taken as a whole, it shows strong and clear evidence for causation, not just correlation. There are certainly other causes, but the Collaborative Review document strongly points to this conclusion: Social media is a major cause of the epidemic of mental illness among teenage girls.

The European Union bans TikTok from official devices

In this context, the European Union has asked all employees to remove TikTok from all devices using corporate apps.

The EU executive’s IT service has urged all Commission staff to uninstall TikTok from their company devices, as well as the personal devices that use company apps, citing privacy concerns.

The request to uninstall the Chinese social media app was emailed to EU officials on Thursday morning (23 February).

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Similar bans follow in the US.

TikTok told Euractiv that the action was “misguided” and based on “fundamental misunderstandings”.

Photo: Zhivko Minkov/Unsplash

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