Unlucky Victims: Teen Girls and Social Media

The question of what’s driving the rising rates of depression among teenagers — particularly among teenage girls — is more pressing now than ever.

As part of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report in February 2023 showing an increase in mood disorders among teenage girls. Sixty percent of the girls reported persistent sadness and hopelessness, and nearly a quarter said they had a suicide plan to escape when their emotions got the better of them.

Article will be continued after viewing

As politicians and psychologists ponder the causes behind this alarming trend – one that is not unique to the US but is also evident in the UK and elsewhere around the world – the potentially corrosive impact of social media on teen mental health is becoming more relevant -Girls thrust back into the spotlight of the Inquisition.

Measuring mood in teenage girls is problematic

Having just written a report for the educational organization The Female Lead about our research examining the possibility of improving social media health – meaning using social media in a way that promotes, not undermines, girls’ well-being – I’m amazed at how much the mainstream lacks arguments linking social media use to bad moods in teens.

First, one relies heavily on correlations: the much-cited work of Jean Twenge, for example, showed that in 2014 over 80 percent of teenage girls used social media on a daily basis, compared to less than 60 percent in 2009. Jonathan Haidt, an experimental psychologist, the significant Contributing to understanding the negative impact of modern “protection” on teen well-being, in his review of published research on social media and teens, notes that 55 studies found significant correlations between social media use (usually measured in terms of time, spent on social media) and depression or anxiety, compared to just 11 studies reporting no significant association between them. This ignores publication bias, making research that shows no correlation less likely to be published. But that’s not the only problem.

READ :  Jaguar's Social Media Specialist, Ahmon Lott shares what it means to be a Black creative in the NFL

Intervention is better than hand wringing

There are significant issues with most studies of teenage girls’ mood and social media use, whether those studies report a correlation between them or not.

Our most recent study aimed to assess the repeatability of our 2019 project, in which we found that optimizing girls’ use of social media by asking them to add at least five positive female role models – profiles that were carefully were chosen in accordance with each girl’s specific interests – her role has changed dramatically on social media. In response to this intervention, they used social media more positively to explore goals and interests. Many of the girls who participated in this exercise also went on to “clean up their social media feed” (hence our use of “Disrupt Your Feed” as the title for the project).

Article will be continued after viewing

In the most recent follow-up project with adolescent girls between the ages of 13 and 17, we also wanted to investigate connections between social media use and mood. But the challenges we’ve had in assessing teen moods lead me to wonder how robustly anyone can study these connections.

Mismatched actions

We found that the girls’ mood varied significantly from week to week, from day to day, and even within a single day. We found that their use of and response to social media depended on their mood before engaging with social media. When their spirits were high, these glossy images of others’ glamorous lives could lift their spirits. When their mood was down, they were reminded of their deficiencies.

READ :  Elon Musk's Twitter bans links to rival social media site Mastodon

Even more surprising to me was that the life satisfaction scale, which is often taken as an indicator of girls’ well-being, bore no relation to teenage girls’ moods. Girls were very poor at assessing their general mood, but scored strongly on the life satisfaction scale because they saw that their general living conditions were objectively close to ideal, especially when they compared their situation to being in the middle of the war, or not able to heat their homes and access food.

Bring the youth agency into the picture

My main concern is that the heated debates going on at the moment are missing one of the most interesting insights of our new project. Teenage girls themselves, who were usually portrayed as unfortunate victims of what Michelle Goldberg put it, “irresponsible corporate giants,” actually worked hard to take control of their social media feeds.

Article will be continued after viewing

They noticed how their more positive use of social media affected the algorithms that governed their feed. They noticed that they could influence their feed by closing some threads or profiles with an available “I don’t care” option. They noted that passive scrolling left them dissatisfied and exhausted, while actively searching for interesting posts could be inspirational.

That doesn’t mean they solved the problem. They knew that higher powers were working to augment their less productive interests, or “weaknesses” as they called them. But if policymakers and educators have a genuine interest in improving the health of social media, and if these corporate giants genuinely want to serve their customers, then our study shows they should start with what teenage girls are telling them about their own accomplishments and frustrations in maintaining their own mental health when using social media.

READ :  'Faux-tonement' trend takes off for 2022 Jewish high holidays