Can science quell the social media/mental health crisis?

Every day another news article shines an alarming spotlight on the worsening mental health issues facing children and teenagers. In my work as a psychiatrist, I have unfortunately witnessed this reality as levels of hopelessness, increased suicidal thinking, and anxiety increase. Although I do what I can in my own practice to help children and teenagers, more needs to be done. I support all medical professionals across the country who have called on Meta, Facebook’s parent company and one of the main contributors to rising teen anxiety, to make reforms to protect young people’s health.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg stubbornly refuses to do anything. In response, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine are launching a major research study analyzing the impact of social media on the health of teens and children, which should force policymakers to come off the sidelines and act. The research will examine the use of user data by social media companies and how this breach of privacy affects the health and safety of children and teenagers. The study should lay the groundwork for future social media research to help protect our youth and recommend ways for parents, social media companies, and government officials to minimize the potential harms of social media use.

This research is badly needed.

Teenagers are already struggling with the issues we usually think of at that age: their sexuality, their ability to fit in at school, to make their parents happy. Against the backdrop of a world that is more challenging, from the existential fear of the climate crisis to changing protocols for COVID-19 to the financial obstacles their parents may face, anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide are more common today ever met.

Although the suicide rate among young Americans has risen across the board, it is troubling that girls of color are making up a larger share of these children. About 15% of black female high school students attempted suicide in 2018. Most of these alarming increases—at least in my experience, but supported by a growing body of research—seem to be related in some way to social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook.

I have seen patients who are obsessed with comparing themselves to their friends based on what their friends share on Instagram and WhatsApp. I have seen patients who are so concerned about fitting in with their circle of virtual friends that they neglect the real people in their real lives. I’ve listened to patients describe creating the perfect digital persona, the perfect avatar, so that their lives finally make sense because the only thing that counts are likes, hearts, shares, and smiley emoticons.

What mattered greatly to these young patients was validation from the largely anonymous metauniverse, not coincidentally the inspiration for the name Zuckerberg chose to rename Facebook. The Wall Street Journal published leaked internal documents that illustrate the corporation’s negligence, if not complicity, in failing to stop the toxic effects of its platforms on teenage mental health.

Meta’s own research on Instagram’s negative effects on teenage girls’ mental well-being shows that (and quotes are the company’s): “We’re exacerbating body image issues for one in three teenage girls.” And “Among teens who report thoughts about suicide, 13 percent of UK users and 6 percent of US users followed a desire to kill themselves on Instagram.”

Predictably, Facebook downplayed the investigation and denied any wrongdoing. About a month after the leak, Facebook changed its name to Meta.

A new project by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine should give us the one thing that’s been missing from the conversation surrounding social media and its impact on mental health: rigorous amounts of science. Social media is addictive, especially for the teenage brain, which is still maturing. With every heart, share, or smiley emoticon, the brain sends a signal that exaggerates the value of trying to fit in with virtual friends rather than real people in real life. When this doesn’t happen, you can imagine withdrawal, similar to alcohol or cocaine, when desperate attempts are made to get more attention or face the depression that comes with rejection. We know that the growing age group is already more sensitive to rejection.

Studies already show that social media use is consistently linked to negative body image and that this link strengthens over time. The more women see images of thin bodies on Instagram, the more dissatisfied they become with their bodies. I hear these stories in my practice. Even Olivia Rodrigo addresses the connection between teenage girls’ self-esteem and social media when she sings in “jealousy, jealousy”: “Comparison is killing me slowly; I think I think too much about kids who don’t know me.”

We should not ignore the demonstrable link between social media sites and their impact on people’s mental well-being as the cost of doing business in a free market. Just as other products must go through validation procedures for proper use and safety before they go on the market, the same rules must apply to Meta and its apps, Facebook and Instagram in particular.

Social media is not going away. Our challenge is to make social media a safer space for everyone who uses it.

At Meta’s annual general meeting in May, Zuckerberg refused to listen to shareholders who demanded significant reform to better protect people’s health and safety. Soon, policymakers will have the necessary information they need to protect children and youth — and force Zuckerberg to put people’s health before his profits.

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