In its article “Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show,” the Wall Street Journal recently revealed that Facebook has long known about the deleterious mental health effects of its social media sites on teens, and most notably girls, based on the company’s own data. The WSJ’s exposé of the “Facebook Files” has shocked millions of people. This revelation did not shock us or other experts and researchers studying youth social media use.
For the past decade, hundreds of studies have documented that highly visual social media, such as Instagram and Facebook, can negatively affect teen girls’ mental health. When studies focus on simple measures of screen-time, they often find small but statistically significant associations between time on social media and depressive symptoms. However, studies that have examined how adolescents use social media tell a different story. For instance, research consistently shows that social media’s negative effects may be stronger for girls and for youth who engage in higher levels of social comparison or have negative experiences on social media. In a rigorous experimental study, exposure to edited Instagram images of teen girls led directly to lower body image, which was most true for girls with higher social comparison tendencies. Other studies, using a broad range of methods, show that negative experiences on social media use are linked to poor sleep, heightened symptoms of depression, and body image concerns. And teens who experience bullying on social media are at heightened risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
Unfortunately, it is very difficult to combat the strong pull of social media for teens, especially for those who may be most vulnerable to its effects. Former social media engineers now speak out about how Facebook and other social media companies intentionally design their products to hook users and make it difficult to stop checking and posting. Social media taps into key evolutionarily-driven processes that are heightened during adolescence, such as an increased drive for peer approval and social status, and heightened biological response to social threat and rejection. The power of social media may be best illustrated by brain imaging research showing that social media activates areas of teens’ brains associated with social reward. Simply stated, social media can affect youth development and mental health by creating unprecedented opportunities for harmful behavior, such as problematic social comparisons, exposure to discrimination directed towards racial, ethnic, sexual, and gender minorities, and cyberbullying. It is certainly true that social media can have social and emotional benefits for teens, especially when teens use social media to make meaningful connections with peers. Yet, its negative mental health effects and consequences, especially for teen girls, have gone unchecked for far too long.
We had long suspected that Facebook was downplaying the negative effects of its platforms, especially for teen girls. What we did not know is how much data they had collected, or how explicit and dire their internal conclusions had been. This vital information was not shared with us or with the public, despite formal requests to the company and congressional hearings. The WSJ’s revelations about Facebook’s data suppression evokes memories of “big tobacco,” which similarly suppressed internal data on its product’s health risks.
Now is the time to mandate that Facebook and other “big tech” companies share their data, along with the tools used for data gathering and analysis. This information needs to be provided in full and not just occasionally or selectively at the discretion of Facebook and other companies. Only researchers who do not have a financial stake in the outcome can robustly and dispassionately evaluate and interpret this data, test mitigation strategies, and openly disseminate this information to the public.
Developing and implementing interventions to reduce the negative effects of social media on teen mental health is certainly complex, but not impossible. Conversations and research will benefit from the involvement of experts across disciplines, including pediatricians, psychologists, neurologists, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, child development experts, computer engineers, data scientists, parents and teens, and the social media industry. For now, we and other scientists and stakeholders will continue to rigorously examine the effects of social media on teen mental health, with or without Facebook’s support. But together, we can create optimal interventions and solutions that keep teen mental health firmly in mind.
Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development,
Sophia Choukas-Bradley, PhD
Jessica L. Hamilton, PhD
Dimitri Christakis, MD, MPH
Mitch Prinstein, PhD
Elizabeth Englander, PhD
Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra, DO
About Children and Screens
Since its inception in 2013, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, has become one of the nation’s leading non-profit organizations dedicated to advancing and supporting interdisciplinary scientific research, informing and educating the public, advocating for sound public policy for child health and wellness, and enhancing human capital in the field. For more information, see www.childrenandscreens.com or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.