Social Media as a Mental Health Threat! By Mrs. Vera West

Psychologists Jon Haidt and Zach Rausch have done extensive psychological research on the harms that arise from social media, especially to children, who are mentally vulnerable. Social media is a major cause of mental illness he has argued: And he has a book on this theme: The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, Allen Lane (2024). The material is difficult to concisely summarise, but an account is given below. For our purposes, what is of interest is that Haidt and Rausch are fully behind the proposal by U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy that government-mandated warning labels somehow be placed on social media, like those that a previous Surgeon General called for in 1964, on cigarettes. I have no idea how this would be enforced.

However, that is a far better proposal than outright bans, or setting up an entire bureaucracy for censorship as in Australia, that is really geared not towards protecting children but censoring political opponents. Still, even with the warnings on cigarette packs, people and children still smoked, and social media is for some even more addictive than heroin. It poses a major social problem what to do here, to protect the young, while preserving political free speech. It is not an easy thing to resolve, especially given the interest of the government to use the issue as a political weapon against conservatives.

"The U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, has long been a leader on the youth mental health crisis. He wrote a book in 2020 on loneliness (Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World), and in 2023 he issued a landmark report on loneliness. In 2023, he also published a major report, a Surgeon General's Advisory reviewing the research on social media and concluding that:

The current body of evidence indicates that while social media may have benefits for some children and adolescents, there are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.

Yesterday, June 17, Dr. Murthy dropped a bomb: An essay in the New York Times in which he called for government-mandated warning labels on social media, akin to those that a previous Surgeon General called for in 1964, on cigarettes.

In this post, we want to support the Surgeon General by making two points:

1.In public health emergencies, we don't wait for certainty

2.The empirical evidence backing up the Surgeon General is now very strong

We Don't Wait for Certainty

Dr. Murthy starts off his essay like this;

One of the most important lessons I learned in medical school was that in an emergency, you don't have the luxury to wait for perfect information. You assess the available facts, you use your best judgment, and you act quickly. The mental health crisis among young people is an emergency — and social media has emerged as an important contributor. Adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media face double the risk of anxiety and depression symptoms, and the average daily use in this age group, as of the summer of 2023, was 4.8 hours. Additionally, nearly half of adolescents say social media makes them feel worse about their bodies.

It is time to require a surgeon general's warning label on social media platforms, stating that social media is associated with significant mental health harms for adolescents.

How different this is from the mindset used in many parts of the academic research community! When we review articles for academic journals or debate with our colleagues, we insist on very high levels of proof, at least beyond a reasonable doubt. We are very careful about what we admit in a scientific journal. We pride ourselves on our skepticism, and we treat one kind of error (publishing or believing something that turns out to be false) as far more serious than the other kind of error (failing to publish or believe something that turns out to be true).

This is why the debate with our critics has been going on for five years and will likely continue for many more years before we reach widespread consensus, as happened with public health threats such as tobacco and leaded gas. Most of our critics don't argue that social media is harmless; their position is that the evidence we have amassed is not strong enough to be confident that social media is harmful. Nearly all now agree that there are associations between hours of usage and levels of depression/anxiety, but some critics argue that the correlations are too small to have caused such a big change in rates of adolescent mental illness. They agree that many experiments show benefits from quitting social media, but also point out some studies that show no benefits and even some that suggest harm from quitting social media (more on this in a moment).

This is how normal academic debates work. Their critiques have forced us to dig deeper and think harder. In purely "academic" science, we have plenty of time to debate the details of measurement, operationalization, and statistical analyses used in each study.

The public health community is part of the scientific community too, but their time horizons are shorter, and their cost-benefit analyses are very different. Because threats to public health can arise quickly and spread rapidly, they do not have the "luxury to wait for perfect information." Public health officials must consider the costs of both kinds of errors.

Suppose that everyone who thinks that social media has harmed their children is wrong. Suppose everyone has simply fallen for another "moral panic," and so America enacted the steps urged by the surgeon general or the four norms that we recommend in The Anxious Generation. What harms would result from that mistake?

1.A lot of kids would be forced to wait until high school to get social media (as the Surgeon General urges)

2.Phones would be locked up during the school day, so kids would spend more time playing and talking together in person—and sometimes even listening to the teacher.

3.Very little money would be wasted, as the four new norms cost nothing to implement beyond the cost of phone lockers.1

But what if the millions of parents, teachers, principals, psychologists, and members of Gen Z who believe that social media is harming young people turn out to be correct, and yet America continues to do nothing, waiting another decade for the psychological research community to reach wide consensus? In this case, the cost of additional suffering and learning loss is almost incalculable. It would mean another ten years of kids experiencing unprecedently high rates of anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide. Another ten years of students with declining educational attainment due to having a massive distraction machine in their pockets, disrupting their focus with notifications every few minutes. It would mean another ten years of rising costs to all 50 states for psychiatric emergency room visits and subsequent hospitalizations as the mental health crisis rolls on.

The Surgeon General is absolutely right that our top goal here cannot be certainty; it must be protecting children based on the best available evidence.

The Evidence of Widespread Harm Is Now Very Strong

Since 2019, we (Jon and Zach, along with Jean Twenge) have been collecting and organizing all the relevant published studies we can find — posting the titles, links, and abstracts in publicly visible Google docs. We now have dozens of such documents on many aspects of the crisis, from the scale of the youth mental health crisis to the impact of phone-free schools. We take all the studies on all sides, and we lay them out in neatly categorized buckets so that everyone can see for themselves what the nature of the evidence is on all sides.

Our main document is titled

Social Media and Mental Health: A Collaborative Review

Please check that out for yourself, or take our guided tour of the document in this Substack post:

Social Media is a Major Cause of the Mental Illness Epidemic in Teen Girls. Here's the Evidence

or in this more recent update:

Yes, Social Media Really Is a Cause of the Epidemic of Teenage Mental Illness

Jon described much of this evidence in The Anxious Generation, and we have gone much deeper into it in many substack posts. For the benefit of journalists and general readers interested in the Surgeon General's recommendation, here is a brief narration of the many kinds of evidence and the points that we believe we have established as we have responded to arguments from other researchers. The links are mostly to Substack posts here at After Babel, where we go into great detail on each point.

1. The adolescent mental health crisis is real

From the 1990s through the mid-2000s, there was little sign of any youth mental health problem in the U.S. in any of the long-running nationally representative datasets. But by 2015, adolescent mental health was a 5 alarm fire, with steeply rising rates of loneliness, anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide.

The trends are not plausibly explainable by changing diagnostic criteria or by a greater willingness of Gen Z to report mental illness as the stigma around it declined. No explanation has been given as to why de-stigmatization proceeded suddenly and rapidly around 2012 onward and affected only the young, and no evidence of such rapid de-stigmatization has been provided. If there has been de-stigmatization, it seems likely it's been going on for decades. Yet teen depressive symptoms barely budged between 1991 and 2011 and then suddenly shot upward. Behavioral data also show significant rises in ER admissions and hospitalizations for self-harm episodes among adolescent girls, as well as a rise in actual suicides for both boys and girls since 2010.

2. The crisis is international, happening across most of the developed world

We have done an extensive study of 10 nations (Anglo and Nordic) and found rates of depression, anxiety, and other measures of ill-being have been rising since 2010 in all of them. We have also published a study of Europe using the Health Behavior in School-Age Children Survey, which found that high psychological distress is rising across nearly all Western European nations (with the exception of Spain), and many Eastern European nations. (Note that we have worked to address where and why cultural variation exists, including some Eastern European nations and within more religious communities in the United States).

In addition, economist David Blanchflower has found—across a variety of datasets—that happiness used to be U-shaped by age, with middle age being the least happy; but that is not true anymore. Young adults (ages 18-25) are now the least happy. He has found this trend in 82 countries around the world. He argues that the changes began around 2014.

Emergency department visits and hospitalizations for non-fatal self-harm among adolescent girls have been rising in the five Anglo countries. When we look at suicide rates and split the results by sex and age, there are increases in teen girl suicides during this period, including in the U.S., UK, Australia, Canada, and several other nations. Rates of suicide are very high among adolescent girls in New Zealand but have been at those high levels for many years. In fact, suicide rates among Gen Z girls are higher than any previous generation before them that we have data for. (We do acknowledge variation in self-harm and suicide across nations). 



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Saturday, 20 July 2024

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