Youth, Social Media & Mental Health—What’s the Connection?
Today’s adolescents are the first consumers to have grown up entirely in the digital era. They have come of age alongside social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and others. They are tech-savvy and well-versed in internet language.
Social media facets like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok are among the most popular, with billions of combined users worldwide. According to a 2022 report from the Pew Research Center, nearly half of teens in the United States use the internet “almost constantly.”
So, why are lawsuits targeting social media tech giants like Meta, YouTube and others?
Social media platforms have a captive audience with our youth. That comes with a great responsibility to ensure their safety and well-being. Unfortunately, these platforms have hidden information from the public about the platforms’ negative impact on young users’ mental health.
Meta Platforms, Inc. (Meta), formerly known as Facebook, Inc., is considered one of the Big Five American information technology companies, alongside Alphabet, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft. The company generated $69.7 billion from advertising in 2019, more than 98% of its total revenue for the year. In other words, Meta makes billions of dollars marketing its user base and detailed data on their likes and interests to advertisers to increase its profits.
So, we know these companies are making money off the viewership of their platforms, but how are they doing it, and why is it so damaging to our youth?
Employing addictive psychological tactics to increase the use of their product
Platforms like Facebook and Instagram use email, text, and push notifications to inform users when they receive “likes” or “mentions.” According to a Harvard University study, when someone posts on social media and receives positive feedback, the brain releases dopamine, the body’s “feel-good” hormone, rewarding the behavior.
A similar brain conditioning occurs with addictive drugs. The brain releases dopamine when addictive drugs are consumed, reinforcing the connection between the drug and the resulting pleasure.
Like alcohol or drugs, people can become addicted to social media when they begin to use social networking sites as a coping mechanism to relieve stress, loneliness or depression. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, more than half of teens using social media platforms say it would be hard to give them up.
Continuous use worsens moods and eventually interferes with relationships and work or school tasks. This encourages users to engage more with social media in search of relief, creating a vicious cycle that fosters a dependency on and addiction to social media.
Along with the “dopamine-like” effect these platforms submit to their users, the social media giants also use tactics to keep users returning and staying on their platforms.
Social Media Addiction Side Effects
Like many other addictions, social media addiction is linked to numerous mental health problems, such as:
- Eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, etc.)
- Body dysmorphia (obsessive focus on a perceived flaw in appearance)
- Lack of focus, inability to concentrate
- Self-harm, thoughts of self-harm
- Suicide, attempted suicide, suicide ideation
Social Media Addiction Symptoms
The symptoms of social media addiction among minors are the same as the symptoms of addictive gaming listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s 2013 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the manual used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental disorders:
- Preoccupation with social media and withdrawal symptoms (sadness, anxiety, irritability) when the device is taken away or use is not possible.
- The need to spend more time using social media to satisfy the urge.
- Inability to reduce social media usage or unsuccessful attempts to quit.
- Giving up other activities or losing interest in previously enjoyed activities due to social media usage.
- Continuing to use social media despite problems.
- Deceiving family members or others about the time spent on social media.
- Using social media relieves negative moods, such as guilt or hopelessness.
- Jeopardizing school or work performance or relationships due to social media usage.
Changing algorithms to use consumers’ data unethically.
Social media platforms use advanced computer rules, processes, algorithms, and artificial intelligence to collect and analyze user data. This information is used to assemble virtual files on their users, covering hundreds if not thousands of user-specific data segments. This data collection and analysis allows advertisers to tailor advertising and designate advertising dollars to very specific categories of users.
Many of these data segments are collected by Meta, scrutinizing each user’s activity on and off the platform. This assessment includes behavioral surveillance that users are unaware of, like navigation paths, watch time and overtime.
The bottom line is that the larger a social media platform’s user database grows, the more time users spend there. The more detailed information the platform can extract from its users, the more money it makes.
A growing body of research backs up these findings:
- According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, suicide is the third leading cause of death among high school-aged youths aged 14–18. A separate study on the effect of social media and its correlation to teen suicide found that while social media was not the direct cause of suicide, it did attribute negative behaviors, suicidal thoughts and feelings of loneliness and depression in teens.
- A study published in JAMA Psychiatry suggests teenagers who use social media more than three hours a day are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, aggression and anti-social behavior.
- A Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology study found that heavy use of social media is more likely to trigger feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety in young users rather than feelings of connectivity.
- A review of nine studies on social media’s effects on teens found that “online social networking…leads to increased exposure to and engagement in self-harm behavior due to users receiving negative messages promoting self-harm, emulating self-injurious behavior of others and adopting self-harm practices from shared videos.”
The Facebook Whistleblower
In April 2021, a former Facebook employee resigned and released a massive trove of internal documents to the Wall Street Journal. Those documents included research reports, online employee discussions, and drafts of presentations to senior management. They detailed how the social media platform lied or hid information from the public about several concerning matters, including its impact on young users’ mental health.
The WSJ published a series of reports based on those documents revealing how Facebook and Instagram knew of the problems with the platform but failed to fix any of the issues and, in some cases, made them worse.
The investigation revealed that based on their own research, Meta execs knew that Instagram was toxic to young adults and teens, especially women and girls, mainly harming their sense of worth and mental health. Also, the researchers found that features on Instagram that help foster the platform’s addictive nature are among the most harmful to young people. An example is Instagram’s Explore page, which offers posts based on users’ interests. Yet, the company never made this information available to lawmakers or the public.
On Oct. 3, 2021, CBS’ 60 Minutes aired an interview revealing the identity of the Facebook whistleblower—Frances Haugen. The data scientist was a product manager on Facebook’s Civic Integrity team. The following day, Haugen testified at a U.S. Senate hearing. She urged lawmakers to get involved and help solve the “crisis” created by her former employer’s products.
Haugen explained how Facebook’s algorithm prioritized creating more user activity than their safety. For example, she said young users could be easily steered from relatively innocent content, such as healthy recipes, to content promoting anorexia.
“I came forward because I recognized a frightening truth: almost no one outside of Facebook knows what happens inside Facebook. The company’s leadership keeps vital information from the public, the U.S. government, its shareholders and governments around the world.”
– Data Scientist and Facebook Whistleblower Frances Haugen in testimony to U.S. Senate Committee
Aftermath of the Facebook Whistleblower Testimony
Haugen filed complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission after her testimony before the U.S. Senate and the WSJ’s coverage. She claimed Facebook misled investors and advertisers by hiding or lying about what it knew about how its platforms were being used.
A bipartisan group of state attorneys general also announced an investigation into Meta for promoting Instagram despite knowing the detrimental effects the platform was having on users.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, also recommended that social media and other technology companies help minimize the harmful effects of using their products. He urged the companies to prioritize young users’ well-being and share their data about the impact of social media with independent researchers.
“It’s time we stop trying to profit from kids’ developing brains. For the first time in human history, we have given up autonomous control over our social relationships and interactions, and we now allow machine learning and artificial intelligence to make decisions for us. We have already seen how this has created tremendous vulnerabilities in our way of life. It’s even scarier how this may be changing brain development for an entire generation of youth.” American Psychological Association’s Chief Science Officer Mitch Prinstein.
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