Mali Ward’s parents weren’t thrilled at the thought of their eldest daughter venturing into social media. Now 17, Ward had to lobby for access to Snapchat during her freshman year of high school. “I had to convince my parents about that, with a whole slideshow and everything,” she recalls.
After she made the case that she should be able to use the app to share silly pictures with her friends, her parents relented. Snapchat turned out to be a blessing. This was fall 2020. Ward had just started making friends at her new school in Brookfield, Wisconsin, when her family members—including five siblings—got COVID-19, one by one. The entire household was quarantined for weeks.
“I couldn’t see anyone,” she says. “It was scary, especially since I’d only been in school for a month.” But “Snapchat made it a lot easier to talk to people, including people I had just met. Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to talk to them at all.”
Snapchat is seldom the hero in stories about teens and emotions, but I keep thinking of Ward’s experience as I read headlines about social media and what people have been calling the teen mental health crisis. Rates of anxiety and depression have seemingly risen for adolescents since 2009. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, rates of adolescent depression have risen from 8.1 percent in 2009 to 15.8 percent in 2019; there is some evidence of a further rise during the pandemic. The suicide rate among Americans aged 10–24 increased from 6.8 per 100,000 in 2007 to 10.7 in 2018.
On some dimensions, of course, teens are doing much better than in the past. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the teen pregnancy rate declined by 67 percent from 2007 to 2022. (This is a further decline since the peak in the early 1990s.) Since 1991, the rate of drunk driving fatalities per 100,000 Americans has decreased 70 percent for those under age 21. Youth arrests for violent crime are down by 78 percent since 1994. High school graduation rates have gone up over the past two decades.
But those suicide, anxiety, and depression numbers are worrying, and so people look for explanations. What else has shifted over the last two decades? One obvious change: Social media use has skyrocketed since Facebook’s launch in 2004. Any adult with a Facebook or Twitter account knows these platforms are often rife with insults and with highly edited versions of other people’s lives. These new forms of communication seem like potential culprits.
The past few years have seen a flurry of proposed regulations. Utah, for instance, passed a law in 2023 (taking effect in 2024) requiring social media platforms to verify state residents’ ages and to get parental consent before letting children open accounts; it will also ban platforms from targeting ads at kids. Related legislation has been proposed in other states, and a federal bill would enact a minimum age of 16 for using social media.
Are social media companies in fact to blame for the rising numbers? The surgeon general’s report on the topic, released in May 2023, produced headlines such as NBC’s “Social media is driving the teen mental health crisis, surgeon general warns.” In fact, the report said, “We do not yet have enough evidence to determine if social media is sufficiently safe for children and adolescents.” That’s a far cry from straight-up cause and effect.
The surgeon general’s report did helpfully pull together the best existing research on what turns out to be a complicated question. The literature certainly does raise concerns. One longitudinal study found that adolescents who spent more than 3 hours a day on social media faced double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes. Another study looked at what happened when Facebook was rolled out at different college campuses in 2004–2006. It found a 9 percent increase over baseline in depression and a 12 percent increase in anxiety once Facebook came to town.
But the research is not so clear-cut. Human beings are complicated. “Social media” platforms are a broad and changing category, but they are fundamentally forms of communication. Communication can be good (as it was during Ward’s COVID crisis), can be bad, and, in most cases, can be something in between. Most of the material on platforms like Snapchat is less edifying than Leo Tolstoy. But as University of California, Irvine, psychologist Candice Odgers once put it, “You can hate social media, but it is not the case that it is driving teen suicide, depression, and anxiety.”
If social media and mental health challenges are linked, one obvious question is what the mechanism linking them would be. What is it about going on 2005 Facebook, or 2023 TikTok, that would make some portion of people feel sad or anxious?
There are several possibilities. One common complaint, despite the apps’ diverse formats, is that heavily edited photos and videos glorify unrealistic body shapes and sizes. Another is that people’s tendency to post their life highlights makes normal life feel drab by comparison. Content might expose vulnerable people to ideas of self-harm that hadn’t occurred to them. More broadly, social media apps allow adolescents to see what other people are saying about them in a way that was harder for bullies to pull off when teen communication was offline. If popularity is quantified via followers and likes, people with fewer followers and likes will feel less popular.
Young people themselves often have mixed feelings about these aspects of social media. Marisa Vanness, now a medical student in her mid-20s, eagerly joined Facebook as a teenager. She lived in a rural area, “probably 40 minutes away from my closest friends.” Social media allowed her to connect, but looking back she realizes that she “was too malleable to what other people were thinking or saying about me. I could have gotten into hot water about that. Luckily I didn’t,” but “it’s really hard to build confidence when everyone seems like they’re beautiful and talented on those apps.”
Some small studies have found that turning off social media improves people’s mental states. According to the surgeon general’s report, one randomized controlled trial found that limiting college kids’ social media use to 30 minutes daily for three weeks “led to significant improvements in depression severity. This effect was particularly large for those with high baseline levels of depression who saw an improvement in depression scores by more than 35 percent.”
On the other hand, a study from the Oxford Internet Institute, looking at data from nearly a million Facebook users in 72 countries, found that Facebook’s spread from 2008 to 2019 was slightly positively correlated with well-being.
Surveys can be read in multiple ways, too. While the surgeon general’s report highlights a survey finding that 46 percent of adolescents said social media made them feel worse about their bodies, that same survey noted that 40 percent said it made them feel neither better nor worse—and 14 percent said it made them feel better. (There are often more diverse depictions of beauty online than in magazines where everyone is thin and white.) A plurality felt worse, but a majority did not. Different readers will draw different conclusions from that.
In other words, the links between social media and well-being are complex. Part of the complexity is that social media are so ubiquitous. As The Art of Screen Time author Anya Kamenetz notes, “Every child uses social media and not every child has a mental health problem.”
It isn’t literally every child, but it’s a lot of them. In a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2022, 95 percent of teens said they watch YouTube, 77 percent of them daily, though this is often a matter of watching fairly professionally produced content rather than interacting with peers. About half of teens use Snapchat and Instagram daily, with a slightly higher percentage checking TikTok each day. For all of Facebook’s bad press, few teens use it anymore: According to the Pew survey, Facebook use among teenagers dropped from 71 percent in 2014–15 to 32 percent in 2022, and only 19 percent of teens now say they use it daily. As I write, BeReal is buzzy, but that could change before this article is published.
Various apps also differ from each other. No one suggests LinkedIn is causing a mental health crisis, though some job-hunting young people use it.
Teens in general have a lot of discretionary time, and some teens have copious quantities of it. Electronic distractions, including social media, fill this time quite well.
Every year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey (ATUS) asks thousands of Americans, age 15 and up, to recount how they spent “yesterday,” rolling through all the days of the year. In 2022, Americans aged 15–19 averaged 5.67 hours of leisure time daily. Of this, 1.96 hours were spent watching television, and 1.64 hours on computer-based leisure, producing a total of 3.6 hours of daily screen time. This would include weekends, holidays, and the summer, but a 2019 Pew Research Center analysis of the ATUS data for 15- to 17-year-olds, looking only at the school year, found they still managed 3 hours and 4 minutes per day of screen time. I suspect this is actually an undercount, given that some portion of screen time comes in tiny chunks of time—say, 5 minutes while waiting for the car pool to show up—that wouldn’t even register consciously.
I see this with my own five children. They are in all the sports and music ensembles that suburban family life requires, and they have annoying parents who confiscate their devices every night, yet they still manage to log impressive quantities of screen time. On a recent Thursday, one teenaged child had early-morning jazz band practice from 7:20–8:00 a.m., had the regular school day from 8:15 a.m. to 3:05 p.m., and then had an after-school technology competition club until 4:20 p.m., at which point I picked him up, got him dinner on the road, and delivered him to fencing practice (5:00–7:00 p.m.). He was home at 7:30 p.m. But because he had done his homework during study hall and class downtime, he was able to score 90 minutes of video games before our household 9:00 p.m. in-room-with-no-devices curfew. Plus, I saw him watching videos on his phone in the car.
Plenty of other days featured more screen time.
As with much in life, teens who have involved parents and well-functioning communities have more positive nonscreen options for their nonschool, nonsleeping hours. Multiple surveys found household income inversely correlated with child and teen screen time. Someone who is working too many jobs to drive kids to early-morning jazz band practice, and who is living in a not-so-great neighborhood, might rightly believe having a kid at home playing video games or watching YouTube videos is the least bad option. I can certainly think of much worse options. A recent New York Times article profiled a 14-year-old migrant child injured while working in a slaughterhouse. “TikTok is not that kid’s biggest problem,” says Devorah Heitner, author of Screenwise and Growing Up in Public. “I wish that kid was on TikTok learning dances.”
Whatever kind of downtime kids have, social media fits this downtime well—as it does for adults. Despite shuttling children all over the planet, I too manage to log three or more hours on my phone per day, and not all of it is email, Google Maps, or wholesome NPR podcasts. Scrolling around on Instagram takes zero effort. You don’t have to plan ahead, as you do with getting together in person. For many people, it fits the niche that television would have.
Sebastian Schipman, a 21-year-old graduate from Colorado State University, says he doesn’t “know anyone who’s necessarily been bullied or whose life took a downward spiral” as a result of social media. But, he adds, “It’s kind of an easy way to sit in bed and do nothing all day.”
Human beings have always liked having do-nothing time. Our do-nothing time has just gotten more interesting since we were staring at cave walls.
Some young people might encounter material online that sends them into a downward spiral. The internet has plenty of racism, sexism, and just generally antisocial behavior, like TikTok challenges that encourage vandalism. But human beings in community can do good things too. Benjamin Kaveladze, a psychologist whose doctoral research investigated online communities, notes that “some people will feel totally alone in their in-person community, but you can find a million people just like you online.” For young people with disabilities, or who are the only person of their racial background at their school, or who are LGBTQ, social media connections can be a lifeline.
If you’re facing a mental health challenge, you can find people like you too—and maybe some tips on how to manage. “A lot of people don’t find much interest in talking to a professional mental health counselor, or aren’t able to access one,” Kaveladze says. If other people coping with anxiety offer resources, “there’s something beautiful about that kind of online community.”
In other words, social media platforms are a lot like the in-person world. “It is the meeting place,” says Kamenetz. “It is the place where [young people] hang out. It’s kind of like the mall. Does the mall cause depression and anxiety? Well, it depends what they are doing at the mall.”
That’s not to say that this digital mall needs to be a total free-for-all. Parents who are concerned about social media should monitor how much time their kids are spending there and what sorts of things they’re doing. But in general, people who are fine will be fine. “Your kid who has a great life isn’t going to get on Instagram and destroy that great life,” says Heitner.
Mali Ward keeps herself busy enough with her swim team and studying that her screen time is naturally limited. Not all her friends have those built-in barriers. (“I have friends who are on screens for 8 hours a day.”) Vanness, the medical student, argues that “anyone who has a good foundation, whose parents are teaching them healthy habits, isn’t going to be as impacted as much as people who don’t have as good habits, and who don’t have as strong a sense of self.” But this is the unfairness of life in general. A kid with a supportive family and a well-structured life is more likely to hit the gym for an hour when he’s feeling bad about something he saw online (or in real life). A kid without all that might wallow. But those kids might have wallowed before social media too.
If social media’s links to depression and anxiety aren’t clear-cut, why are the latter’s rates rising? There are no doubt many reasons, particularly in the pandemic years. One intriguing 2023 study in The Journal of Pediatrics suggested that a decline in independent activity and play over the last 50 years (with a corresponding decline in chances to develop self-regulation) has been harmful to children’s mental health. The study’s authors suggest that this change predates the rise of social media.
We may also be seeing more diagnoses of mental health conditions as people become more comfortable talking about them (perhaps because they see them discussed on social media). More knowledge may mean that fewer kids are willing to suffer in silence—and that more marginal cases are diagnosed (some studies have found that not everyone being treated for depression meets the clinical definition).
If there is a link between screen time in general and mental health problems, the chief culprit might not be the content of social media so much as the displacement. A day has only 24 hours, so time spent on one thing is time not spent on something else. As screen-based entertainment in all forms becomes more interesting, people may spend slightly less time on such known mood-boosters as being outside and physical activity.
“You really can’t ban technology. It will find a way,” says parenting expert Katherine Reynolds Lewis, the author of The Good News About Bad Behavior. “You’re always playing catch-up as a government regulator, or even as a parent to be honest.”
In the meantime, “adolescents need a world that’s separate and mysterious to adults.” Though that world probably won’t be Facebook—the old people have taken that one over.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline “All the Sad Young Things”.