The COVID-19 pandemic, and the subsequent lockdown initiated in much of the world, has highlighted the crucial role of social media in social connectivity and news dissemination. In this blog, from our publication On Digital Trust, Dr Margarita Panayiotou explores whether social media is as bad for our mental health as we are led to believe, and outlines how policy can support young people in managing their social media usage.

The relationship between social media and mental health is a hot topic for users, researchers, the media, and government. People are worried. In the light of recent events, it is difficult not to be. Anyone that attended (or followed on social media) the 2019 International Congress of the Royal College of Psychiatrists would have heard that social media is harmful not only for our mental health but also for our ‘neurotransmitter deposits’. A South Korean intervention in which young people are sent to boot camp to rid them of their addictions was one speaker’s suggestion. We are constantly bombarded with news and information about how social media, screen time, and technology in general are detrimental to our mental health. Some go as far as to suggest these are as dangerously addictive as a gram of cocaine. But can we trust what we’re being told?

‘Chicken or egg?’

The relationship between social media use and mental health is a complex one and far too understudied to allow us to draw such strong conclusions. So far, there has been some evidence to suggest that frequent use of social media platforms in adolescents is linked to increased symptoms of depressionsuicide rates and overall psychological distress. These findings are often portrayed by the media using attention-grabbing headlines such as in the Guardian in 2018: “Are smartphones causing more teen suicides?” But when you look closely at the evidence you realise that such strong correlations are flimsy. Why? Well, first, much of the evidence is based on cross-sectional data, meaning all data was collected at a single point in time. In short, there is no way of knowing if increased social media use causes increased symptoms, or the other way around – the classic ‘chicken or egg’ situation.

Even when longitudinal data is used, the link between social media use and mental health is found to be trivial and possibly random (for instance due to large sample sizes). Indeed, robust evidence is starting to paint a different picture: the role of social media use in young people’s mental healthwellbeing and life satisfaction is very small to non-existent.

Addictive behavior

Another flaw of the current evidence is the way social media (use) is measured. Researchers primarily ask questions about the time spent online during a typical day or week. However, we know that these questions are sub-optimal, as they are based on arbitrary criteria and do not adequately capture individuals’ usage patterns and behaviours. In other cases, researchers use questionnaires that measure ‘addictive social media use’. This is highly problematic for two reasons: first, the classification of social media use as an addictive disorder is based on anecdotal evidence; second, many of these measures, on which some of the current conclusions are based, were developed based on gambling addiction and nicotine dependence diagnostic criteria, which possibly include entirely different behaviours. It’s not surprising then, that addictive social media use is linked to psychological distress, given that they share substantial measurement and conceptual overlap. Indeed, where more robust measures have been used (eg smartphone data), the evidence – although new and in need of replication – points to the opposite direction: young people report better wellbeing and mental health on days when they were more active on social media.

Moral panic and misinformation

So, can we trust what we’re being told? The answer is: not always. Blaming social media for young people’s increased rates of poor mental health is very compelling, especially given the increase in technology and social media use. However, social media use may not be the culprit, much in the same way the body of research suggests that violent video games do not seem to cause increased aggression. The evidence is simply not sufficient.

There are no studies examining social media use and depletion of ‘neurotransmitter deposits.’ What is more, sending young people to boot camp to rid them of their addictions or calling for laws to ban social media for young people under 13, at a time when we are no way near classifying social media as an addiction, would be like speeding up, when we don’t even know if it’s a dead-end road.

What we can do

The good news is more robust research is starting to shed some light into this complex relationship, so instead of giving in to unjustified moral panic, there are a few things we can do instead.

First, we need to be more critical of existing claims. While it is often difficult to untangle misinformation or poor research from robust evidence, one thing is sure: research on social media use is new, underdeveloped, and inconclusive. It is therefore wise to take things with a pinch of salt.

Which brings me to my second point: improved research is urgently needed. This is in fact one of the key issues raised by the UK House of Commons in a 2019 Green Paper on the impact of social media and screen use on young people. We need better measurement and more accurate data. The latter cannot be achieved without the former, which is why the role of big tech companies might be more crucial than we think. Social media companies such as Facebook hold very rich data regarding their users’ behaviour, which they use for their own research purposes. Requiring these companies to share their data with independent researches will not only enable us to tackle some of the methodological challenges we are faced with, it will start untangling the complex relationship between social media use and mental health and bring overdue accountability.

Until that happens it is unwise and dangerous to rush into strong conclusions or radical policy changes. After all, we still do not know what it is we are trying to change. Instead, we should focus on educating people. This is not a pioneer suggestion. The Children’s Commissioner has repeatedly called for a compulsory digital citizenship curriculum in schools. Instead of censoring, banning and sending kids to addiction boot camps, all of which assumes that social media addiction is a fact, why not focus on increasing evidence-based social media awareness and giving young people tools and tips for self-regulation?

In a report by The Royal Society for Public Health and the Young Health Movement, eight in ten young people agreed with this. We should listen to them, not alienate them from life-impacting, decision-making processes. We have the tools and responsibility to do better than that.

 

This article was originally published in On Digital Trust, a collection of essays providing analysis and ideas on the use of data in healthcare, crime prevention, and democracy in the current political climate. You can read the full publication here.

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