Social Media’s Impact on Public Health Is Misunderstood

When we are unable to properly assess a situation, we inhibit our abilities to produce meaningful solutions.

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Last week, I was having beers with some dads in my neighborhood. The subject of Instagram came up, and the revelations that, as it is often reported, Facebook’s own data revealed that Instagram harms teenage girls. The dads were in agreement: This is horrible, and something needs to be done.

I sat quietly sipping my beer. I didn’t want to debate these guys, and I appreciate their concern: Many of them have daughters. But I do not worry for their daughters (or my sons). That’s because I’ve been listening to people who actually study technology’s impact on young people’s mental health — and they’re the people the public most rarely hears from.

The Wall Street Journal has treated Facebook’s data like it’s the Pentagon Papers. Politicians have stumbled over themselves (sometimes quite embarrassingly) to display their outrage to voters. Tech critics have taken a victory lap. But researchers and psychologists? People whose actual job is to understand these issues? They tell a more nuanced, and much more important story.

I will detail their insights below, but the summary is this: Facebook's data reveals what teenagers think impacts their mental health, but that is not the same as actually identifying what does impact mental health. The data also identifies more positive impacts than negative impacts, which is something routinely seen in studies that independent academics have conducted on social media's impact on mental health. And when you actually look at peer-reviewed science on this subject, you see little reason to be alarmed — but of course, that doesn't mean there isn't plenty of reason for us all to continue better understanding the subject.

This matters for reasons that go beyond the debate over social media. As I’ve said in this newsletter before, and as I’ll surely say many more times in the future, simplified narratives create complex problems. When we are unable to properly assess a situation, we inhibit our abilities to produce meaningful solutions. And oftentimes, our bias against the new — this technology must be causing this problem! — blinds us to more complex realities.

Now let's look at three main points coming out of the research community:

1. The data is self-reported

Facebook’s researchers did not follow teenagers over a long period of time and assess the many influences that contribute to their mental health. Facebook simply asked these teenagers how Instagram made them feel.

This sounds reasonable — don’t we all know ourselves the best? But in fact, we do not.

“Asking people to introspect on the causes of their own mental health is hardly a reliable way of getting to the truth, given how much is going on in any one person’s life that might positively or negatively affect their wellbeing,” wrote Stuart Ritchie, a psychologist and lecturer in the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at King’s College London.

Over at NPR, my former Fast Company colleague Anya Kamenetz dug into the implications of this. Why might teens be unable to identify the true effects of social media in their lives? Because, she writes, "teenagers are already primed by media coverage, and the disapproval of adults, to believe that social media is bad for them."

Kamenetz spoke to a psychologist named Candice Odgers, who teaches at University of California, Irvine and Duke University, and and who studies how technology and other factors impact young people's mental health. For a 2020 study she coauthored, she and her team also asked teenagers if their mental health was harmed by social media or their phones. Most said yes. "But if you actually do the research and connect their use to objective measures ... there is very little to no connection," Odgers says.

Her paper concluded this way: "At the population level, there was little evidence that digital technology access and use is negatively associated with young adolescents' well-being."

That is the common conclusion for rigorous studies on the subject. Here’s Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University, writing in the New York Times:

Of the better studies that have found a negative correlation between social media use and adolescent mental health, most have found extremely small effects — so small as to be trivial and dwarfed by other contributors to adolescent mental health.

Which leads us to point number two:

2. Correlation is not causation

We've all heard it before. And yet when we believe something is harmful, it is easy to forget.

"'Correlation is not causation' is simultaneously the most hackneyed phrase and overlooked rule in science," Ritchie writes. "Although everyone’s heard it, people writing about studies — journalists and even the scientists themselves — routinely portray purely correlational or observational research as if it was an experiment testing the effect of one thing on another."

For example: If some teenagers who struggle with mental health are using Instagram more than their peers, does that mean Instagram is the cause of the problem — or could it be that these teenagers already struggle with mental health, and, for reasons that we should better understand, they are prone to use Instagram more?

A study that simply identifies correlation, like Facebook's did, cannot answer this question.

You might think: OK, fine, but why do we need to wait for science to draw a straight line? Isn’t there clearly a problem — and isn't it in need of solving now?

That leads us to point number three:

3. We don’t want “solutions” that create more problems

In a Senate committee hearing, it all sounds simple: We investigate the latest innovation, because surely whatever is newest would be the natural cause of whatever problem we’ve most recently identified.

But that can lead us to inadvertently make harmful decisions.

Why? First of all, the focus on harm obscures what else any research shows. Steinberg points out, for example, that Facebook’s research found that “twice as many respondents reported that Instagram alleviated suicidal thinking than said it worsened it; three times as many said it made them feel less anxious than said it made them feel more so; and nearly five times as many reported that Instagram made them less sad than that it made them sadder.”

Other, more rigorous studies have similar findings. The NPR story, for example, details a study done by independent researcher Vicky Rideout, which found that "43% of respondents said using social media usually makes them feel better — not worse — when they're depressed, stressed or anxious." (Only 17% said social media made them feel worse.)

Steinberg writes that if we truly want to help young people, it's important to have a full understanding of their experiences:

If other factors that have contributed to the rise in adolescent depression are being overlooked in the rush to point the finger at Facebook, we may be contributing to the very problem we hope to solve. Parents who believe that they can treat a teenager’s depression simply by restricting her Instagram use may end up ignoring the true causes of her suffering.

This conflict appears in other tech-focused studies as well. For example, in 2006, Duke University released a study showing that the size of people’s personal networks had shrunk since the late 1980s. The authors didn’t overtly blame this on technology, but they did hypothesize that technology could be a cause. This got a lot of coverage at the time, and very well could be the reason you believe (as many do) that technology has shrunk our personal networks.

But in 2008, and again in 2011, the Pew Research Center re-did the study with one critical difference: Duke never actually asked its respondents about their own internet usage. Pew did. What they found was that Internet users reported increased social well-being, and it was primarily non-users who reported a decreased quality of life. Now that we see this distinction, we have a different understanding of the problem — and a new direction for the solution. Whereas before we might have wanted to pull people offline, we now realize that we must do a better job of engaging those who feel left behind.

(I discuss those findings in detail, along with how measurements of personal networks have shifted over time, with the head of the Pew Research Center on this episode of my podcast.)

So, what to do about all this?

Everyone in the research community seems in agreement: This subject is worth continued investigation, just as it is worth continuing to understand all the other modern factors that impact young people’s well-being. And Ritchie has an interesting idea: The big tech platforms should very actively join in.

He writes:

They’re in control of the platforms: They could run all sorts of useful randomized experiments on social media use, with huge samples of willing participants, who they could follow-up across months or years to assess their mental health.

But in the meantime, let’s be mindful of the moment we’re actually in.

I love the work of Amy Orben of the University of Cambridge, who researches how technology affects young people’s well-being and mental health. She conceived of something called the “Sisyphean Cycle of Technology Panics,” which we discussed on my podcast, and which lays out the repetitive process by which the public, media, politicians, and scientists all contribute to a boiling panic over the impact of new things.

One major feature: Politicians and the media amplify the scariest-sounding parts of early scientific reports, without giving society at large time to either process the full story, or giving scientists the time to do more complete and useful work.

We are in that moment now.

Here’s what we actually know, as best I can tell: The world is complicated. Mental health is complicated. Technology’s impact on us is complicated. And we serve absolutely nobody by trying to make any of that simple and scary.

Full disclosure: Yes, I am writing this on a platform owned by Facebook, but that is not influencing my opinion. I have spent years studying and interviewing experts on this very subject, and the analysis I highlighted in this post is consistent with everything I'd heard before. If I believed otherwise, I'd say so.


Cover credit: Malte Mueller / Getty Images