by Larry Magid
This post appeared in the Mercury News
Numerous articles have been published linking tech use among adolescents with increase rates of depression, suicide and other harms. Back in 2011, an article in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics coined the term Facebook Depression, designating “when preteens and teens spend a great deal of time on social media sites, such as Facebook and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression.” but a number of experts refuted that claim. At the time, I wrote “After examining the report’s related references, speaking with the report’s lead author and talking to the lead author of one of the research studies that the claim is based on, I’ve concluded that the diagnosis of Facebook depression is a nonexistent condition.” Of course, people can become depressed when they encounter depressing content on Facebook, but that would be true in any venue.
Another highly cited article from the Atlantic, Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation, by Jean Twenge, was also the subject of much scrutiny, including my own analysis from 2018, where I quoted a number of experts, including prominent youth researcher Vicky Rideout who wrote in a London School of Economics blog, “Twenge is right to be concerned about the mental health of adolescents. Depression and suicide among young people have increased notably … But the suggestion that getting teens to put down their phones would have a meaningful effect on this mental health challenge is overly simplistic; indeed, it could serve as a dangerous distraction from the hard work that needs to happen in adolescent mental health.”
Despite these alarming articles, there are researchers who spend their time reporting actual facts, based on studies of social media and youth behavior. Last week, an article appeared in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry which reviewed an impressive number of studies on the relationship between teens use of mobile phones and social media and negative consequences, with the authors finding that “the focus “on negative effects and has been based on weak correlational data.”
The research review, Adolescent mental health in the digital age: facts, fears, and future directions, “synthesized data from three sources: (a) narrative reviews and meta‐analyses conducted between 2014 and 2019, large‐scale preregistered cohort studies and intensive longitudinal and ecological momentary assessment studies” and found that “technology usage and mental health, show that that associations between time online and internalizing symptoms are often (a) mixed between positive, negative, and null findings, (b) when present, are likely too small to translate into practically or clinically meaningful effects.”
The authors acknowledged that there have been increases in suicide (especially among girls) as well as anxiety and depression among youth in certain countries. “When plotted alongside increases in social media usage across this same time period, a powerful narrative has emerged that social media is driving changes in depressive symptoms and suicidal behaviors.” Yet, when they study the data, they found that ” technology usage and mental health, show that that associations between time online and internalizing symptoms are often (a) mixed between positive, negative, and null findings, (b) when present, are likely too small to translate into practically or clinically meaningful effects.”
Restricting tech use might be ‘ill-advised’
One of the most important observations of the study is that “Policies restricting adolescents’ access to new technologies … may be ill advised if new technologies are being used as a valuable source of social support or are required in order to build digital and interpersonal (digitally mediated) skills for economies of the future.” The authors also argue that “many of the same principles that guide healthy development and inform effective parenting will apply when supporting youth in their online activities and experiences. If this is true, then the good news for parents and policy makers is that existing evidence‐based interventions and strategies may look different but will still be effective in supporting youth in the digital age.”
It would be fool hardy to ignore potential risks associated with connected technology social media, but equally foolhardy to conclude that the growth in technology use is the reason for increase rates of suicide or mental health problems. As any social scientist will tell you, a correlation isn’t the same as causation. I’m no expert when it comes to suicide, but a paper by Kirsten Weir published by the American Psychological Association points out that “Pinpointing the reasons that suicide rates rise or fall is challenging in part because the causes of suicide are complex.” The author goes on to say that “Risk factors include health factors (such as depression, substance use problems, serious mental illness and serious physical health conditions including pain), environmental factors (such as access to lethal means and stressful life events including divorce, unemployment, relationship problems or financial crisis).” She said that half of suicide deaths in the U.S. are “the result of firearms. And there’s evidence that when access to guns goes down, so do suicide deaths.”
Weir points out that countries which have bee able to reduce suicides, “have made suicide prevention a mission, through efforts such as improving access to mental health treatment, investing in community interventions, coordinating suicide prevention across health-care, social, education and employment services.” She does not recommend that people stop using their phones.