from the how-much-more-evidence-do-we-need? dept
I know that we’ve already pointed to a whole bunch of studies, using a variety of different methods that all show no evidence of any link at all between social media and teen depression, but it’s time to highlight another one.
I mean, we just interviewed Professor Andy Przybylski, who published a study showing no evidence that Facebook and Facebook Messenger increase depression. That one comes four years after another study by him that showed no evidence that social media was making kids unhappy. In between then there have been a bunch of other studies. By 2020, the academic consensus appeared to be that social media wasn’t actually bad for kids. More recently, the American Psychological Association did a meta analysis of all the studies on this topic and said there was no evidence of a harmful link between social media and teen depression. Pew Research did a study showing that most kids found social media to be tremendously beneficial.
Even the Surgeon General’s recent report on social media — which has been widely reported by the media to say that social media was bad for kids — actually admitted that studies could find no link between mental health problems and social media. It still recommended acting as if there was a link just in case, but that seemed at odds with what the report admitted the science actually said.
Anyway, now we have yet another study on this subject, looking specifically at children in Norway, where (yet again) they can find no link between social media and depression. You can read the whole study if you’d like the details. The results are clear:
Within-person changes in self- and other oriented social media behavior were unrelated to within-person changes in symptoms of depression or anxiety two years later, and vice versa. This null finding was evident across all timepoints and for both sexes. Conclusions: The frequency of posting, liking, and commenting is unrelated to future symptoms of depression and anxiety. This is true also when gold standard measures of depression and anxiety are applied.
As the authors of the paper note, many other papers trying to make this link have used perhaps questionable proxies for mental health:
A major shortcoming of existing research is that studies have conceptualized mental health problems in a variety of ways (e.g., reduced well-being, psychological distress, poor self-esteem, depressive symptoms). Because social media use may relate differently to different mental health problems (e.g., social anxiety versus overall well-being), these inconsistent findings may be due to studies not assessing the same phenomenon. Studies have also typically relied on self-reports of both social media use and mental health, thereby running the risk of inflating relations due to a common methods bias. Studies assessing more strictly defined mental health problems and measuring such problems by other means than self-report are needed.
The paper goes through a number of earlier papers that attempt to explore this subject, and notes that it’s trying to add to the literature with more concrete information regarding mental health. They did so by making use of a dataset which explored the mental health of children in Norway in great detail over an extended period of time:
The present inquiry is based on data from the Trondheim Early Secure Study (TESS), a longitudinal study of children’s mental health and psychosocial development starting at age 4 years. In 2007/2008, all children born four years earlier in Trondheim, Norway (N = 3,456) were invited to participate in the study. Their parents received an invitation letter together with the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) version 4–16) (Goodman, 1997), a mental health screening assessment, which they brought to the child’s 4-year health check at a community health center. At the check up, they were informed about the study by the health care nurse and gave their written consent to participate. Nearly all children attended the check-up (97.2%) and 82.2% of those who were asked to participate consented. To increase variance and thus statistical power, participants with higher scores on the SDQ were oversampled, which is accounted for in the analyses (i.e., weighting back to the population estimates). More specifically, children were allocated to four strata according to their SDQ scores (cut-offs: 0–4, 5–8, 9–11, and 12–40), and the probability of selection increased with increasing SDQ scores (0.37, 0.48, 0.70, and 0.89 in the four strata, respectively). Based on this procedure, 1,250 were selected to participate, and among these, 1007 (79.8%) met at the first assessment at the university clinic. Since then, biennial assessments have been conducted.
While covering just Norway, that’s still a pretty detailed and useful data set. The researchers note that the data set also included social media usage making it even more useful and relevant.
With all that data, it would be a great dataset to explore if greater usage of social media resulted in greater incidents of mental health issues. But the data… does not show that:
As can be seen, changes in self- and other oriented social media use did not predict changes in participants’ level of symptoms for depression, social anxiety, or generalized anxiety. There were also no significant effects in the opposite direction: changes in depression and anxiety symptoms did not forecast future levels of self- and other oriented social media behavior.
The researchers point to other research to suggest that, hey, maybe social media is just one form of communication, and that doesn’t change anything having to do with mental health:
Given the presumed mechanisms linking social media use and symptoms of depression and anxiety presented above, how come no within-person relations are revealed? As noted, according to the displacement theory (Kraut et al., 1998), increased social media use may decrease face-to-face interactions, potentially impairing mental health. However, a recent review concludes that social media is more likely to replace time spent on other media activities, rather than off-line interaction (Hall & Liu, 2022). In many cases, social media seems to complement rather than displace in-person interactions (Hall & Liu, 2022; Kushlev & Leitao, 2020; Requena & Ayuso, 2019); prospectively predicting more face-to-face interactions (Dienlin, Masur, & Trepte, 2017) and social capital (Hooghe & Oser, 2015). Adolescents even report feeling closer to their friends after using social media (Dredge & Schreurs, 2020; Pouwels, Valkenburg, Beyens, van Driel, & Keijsers, 2021).
Of course, this study got almost no press at all, as compared to the Surgeon General’s report, which got a ridiculous amount of press, almost all of it falsely reporting that the Surgeon General had found that social media is linked to depression.
And, this matters. We already have politicians repeating over and over again that it’s “proven beyond a doubt” that social media causes depression and that they have to regulate it. Even worse, you have a bunch of lawsuits from school districts, claiming that social media has destroyed the brains of kids in their schools.
It would be nice, just once, for any of the media or politicians to admit that the data doesn’t support these moral panic claims.