Part 1 aims to summarize medical and psychological research on the impact of social media (SM) on the health of a typical adolescent user. The title reflects the conclusion. Part 2 demonstrates suppression of this research.
In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned parents and doctors of the risks and harms of SM to adolescents. Thereafter, research has proven beyond significant doubt that the typical use of SM is indeed harmful to adolescents’ health, especially mental health.
Girls are more vulnerable to SM impact than boys. The suicide rate among 12- to 14-year-old girls increased three times from 2007 to 2015 (not necessarily because of SM). An overwhelming body of medical and psychological research shows a correlation between the use of SM by teenage girls (ages 13–18) and symptoms of mental illness. Beyond correlation, significant research demonstrates causation – the use of SM causes mental illness. This causation is also explained theoretically. The author searched but could not find valid research showing the health benefits or even absence of harm of SM for a typical adolescent user.
Part 1 introduces the science of Social Media Damaging Adolescents’ Health (SMDAH). Part 2, “Suppression of Information and Research of Social Media Damage to Adolescents’ Health” [link], is the main one, and you can go straight to it if you are familiar with SMDAH.
Here, the term social media (SM) refers to big (anti-) social networks that have been used in the last 10 years—Facebook, Instagram (owned by Facebook), Twitter, YouTube, and few others—rather than an abstract notion. Adolescents spend most of their SM time on smartphones, and most of their smartphone time is spent on SM, so use of SM and use of smartphones can be considered almost interchangeable. Apple is responsible for more than half of SM consumption by adolescents. Different social networks have different impacts. Facebook is the most researched SM, although a fraction of adolescents using it is decreasing.
Of course, the effects of SM on personal health depend on the person, on what SM network is used, how it is used, amount of use, and random factors. Almost any product, service, or activity might be harmful if used excessively or improperly. Unfortunately, SM tends to harm majority of adolescent users, or a typical adolescent SM user. Here, a typical user is defined as a user in the middle of the 68th percentile (67.5%) of amount of SM exposure, which corresponds to a median one in the range 40%–95%. This range comprises most users, and the conclusion is derived from the reviewed papers. The excluded top 5% comprises persons afflicted with Facebook Addiction Disorder (FAD), which is a separate subject, not included in most research papers.
The selected definition of a typical user has another justification. Revenues and valuation that an SM company derives from a user increase with exposure/consumption, like in the tobacco. I guesstimate that revenues from the typical user are close to the average revenues per user, and the exposure to SM by the typical user is close to the average exposure by all users.
Looking at a typical user’s SM exposure patterns allows to overcome weasel wording of the Big Tech advocates, who say some types of exposure are harmful, and some are beneficial. There is an analogy to tobacco — selling cigarettes is profitable, smoking one cigarette a day is probably harmless, but a typical use — smoking a pack a day — causes lung cancer.
The theoretical explanations of the negative influence of SM include such factors as self-comparison with others’ idealized image, cyberbullying, reduced time for face-to-face communication, and reduced physical exercise, among others.
The following are quotes from some of the reviewed papers.
The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families
Clinical Report, reflecting the opinion of the American Academy of Psychiatrics in 2011. Available at http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/127/4/800.
(Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe , Kathleen Clarke-Pearson and Council on Communications and Media 2011):
From the Abstract:
“… it is important that parents become aware of the nature of social media sites, given that not all of them are healthy environments for children and adolescents. Pediatricians are in a unique position to help families understand these sites and to encourage healthy use and urge parents to monitor for potential problems with cyberbullying, “Facebook depression,” sexting, and exposure to inappropriate content.”
From the body:
“Because of their limited capacity for self-regulation and susceptibility to peer pressure, children and adolescents are at some risk as they navigate and experiment with social media. Recent research indicates that there are frequent online expressions of offline behaviors, such as bullying, clique-forming, and sexual experimentation, that have introduced problems such as cyberbullying, privacy issues, and “sexting.” Other problems that merit awareness include Internet addiction and concurrent sleep deprivation.”
Researchers have proposed a new phenomenon called “Facebook depression,” defined as depression that develops when preteens and teens spend a great deal of time on social media sites, such as Facebook, and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression. … As with offline depression, preadolescents and adolescents who suffer from Facebook depression are at risk for social isolation and sometimes turn to risky Internet sites and blogs for “help” that may promote substance abuse, unsafe sexual practices, or aggressive or self-destructive behaviors.“
NB: All mentions of the Facebook depression disappear in the 2016 version of the AAP opinion.
Dr. Jean Twenge
Dr. Jean Twenge is probably the most prominent researcher and writer on the subject. She is also the famous author of the book Generation Me about millennials.
by Jean Twenge (August 2017) is a highly recommended book, easy reading with a lot of statistics.
“Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, is the author of more than a hundred scientific publications and two books based on her research.”
(Jean Twenge, et al. 2017):
“Adolescents who spent more time on new media (including social media and electronic devices such as smartphones) were more likely to report mental health issues, and adolescents who spent more time on nonscreen activities (in-person social interaction, sports/exercise, homework, print media, and attending religious services) were less likely.”
Jean Twenge, website FAQ:
The original research I present in iGen finds that teens who spend more time on screens are less happy and more depressed (in a large, nationally representative sample of U.S. teens). For example, 8th graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media sites are 56% more likely to be unhappy than those who spend less time. The link holds when gender, race, and socioeconomic status is taken into account. But those analyses are correlational, so it is possible that unhappy or depressed teens spend more time on screens.
However, three other studies using different research designs have come close to ruling out that possibility. Two longitudinal studies (here https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28093386 and here http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0069841) find that social media use leads to unhappiness, but unhappiness does not lead to social media use. A third study is a true experiment, meaning it can show causation. People were randomly assigned to either give up Facebook for a week or continue their normal Facebook use. Those who gave up Facebook ended the week happier, less depressed, and less lonely. (http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/cyber.2016.0259?journalCode=cyber)
Also: Depression causing social media use doesn’t explain why depression would increase so suddenly after 2011-12. In that model, something else would have to cause teen depression to rise so sharply, which would then lead to more smartphone and social media use. It seems much more likely that smartphone and social media use increased, and depression and unhappiness followed.”
“The More You Use Facebook, the Worse You Feel”
A recent review article.
Holly Shakya, Nicholas Christakis; Harvard Business Review, April 10, 2017
The article is based on (Holly Shakya and Nicholas Christakis 2017), published on February 1, 2017:
“Overall, our results showed that, while real-world social networks were positively associated with overall well-being, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being. These results were particularly strong for mental health; most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year.”
“Prior research has shown that the use of social media may detract from face-to-face relationships, reduce investment in meaningful activities, increase sedentary behavior by encouraging more screen time, lead to internet addiction, and erode self-esteem through unfavorable social comparison. Self-comparison can be a strong influence on human behavior, and because people tend to display the most positive aspects of their lives on social media, it is possible for an individual to believe that their own life compares negatively to what they see presented by others.”
I divide other papers based on whether they were published before and after the date of the current AAP opinion.
Published by November 1, 2016
(Cecilie Schou Andreassen, et al. 2012) is a highly cited paper. Facebook Addiction Disorder (FAD) is typically defined as addiction to any social network, not only Facebook. It is not listed in DSM-5. FAD doesn’t play a significant role in the social media health damage statistics.
“The Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale (BFAS), initially a pool of 18 items, three reflecting each of the six core elements of addiction (salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict, and relapse), was constructed and administered to 423 students together with several other standardized self-report … The scores converged with scores for other scales of Facebook activity.”
Other papers are not related to FAD.
(Ethan Kross, et al. 2013):
“These analyses indicated that Facebook use predicts declines in the two components of subjective well-being: how people feel moment to moment and how satisfied they are with their lives.”
(Christina Sagioglou and Tobias Greitemeyer 2014); Highlights:
“Facebook activity negatively correlates with mood.
Facebook use but not Internet browsing dampens mood.
A feeling of having wasted time accounts for the effect of Facebook activity on mood.
People commit a forecasting error by expecting to feel better after Facebook use.”
(Morten Tromholt 2016):
The title tells all: “Quitting Facebook Leads to Higher Levels of Well-Being.”
(Heather Cleland Woods and Holly Scott 2016); from the Highlights:
“Social media use associated with poor sleep, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.
Poor sleep most strongly associated with nighttime-specific social media use.
Anxiety and depression most strongly associated with emotional investment in sites.”
(Mai-Ly Steers 2016)—a review paper:
“‘Facebook depression’ findings have been mixed. One reason for the conflicting results may be Facebook’s complex relationship with relatedness needs and depressive symptoms. Thus, this article reviewed the existing literature to better elucidate these associations. Facebook use appears to be motivated by both connection and disconnection (and vice versa), which in turn, has implications for users’ mental health.”
(Liuyi Lin, et al. 2016):
“SM use was significantly associated with increased depression. Given the proliferation of SM, identifying the mechanisms and direction of this association is critical for informing interventions that address SM use and depression.”
“All associations between independent variables and depression had strong, linear, dose–response trends. Results were robust to all sensitivity analyses.”
Published after November 1, 2016
(Anna Vannucci and Kaitlin Flannery 2017); from the Highlights:
“More time spent using social media was associated with greater symptoms of dispositional anxiety.”
“More social media use was linked to greater odds of having an anxiety disorder.”
(Brian Primack , Ariel Shensa, et al. 2017):
“We found a linear association between the number of platforms used and depression.”
“We found a linear association between the number of platforms used and anxiety.”
“While increased time spent on social media (TSSM) has been associated with depression and anxiety, the independent role of using multiple social media (SM) platforms is unclear.”
(Brian Primack , Meghan Bisbey, et al. 2018):
“Negative experiences online may have higher potency than positive ones because of negativity bias.”
Finally, I have surveyed “population likely to be better informed on the subject” about their opinion regarding SM impacts on adolescents (Leo Goldstein 2018). The result matches that of real research: 94% respondents said that SM is harmful or very harmful to adolescents’ health, and two-thirds of them said it is very harmful.
Some of the mentioned papers refer to studies putatively showing health and/or well-being benefits of Facebook or SM use. Close inspection of those studies invalidates this interpretation: those studies investigated nontypical ways of using SM, measured parameters outside of the health and well-being sphere, and/or involved very small groups.
The following are quotes from two sample articles in the general media that discuss this phenomenon.
Jean Twenge, The Atlantic, September 2017:
“The shift is stunning: 12th-graders in 2015 were going out less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009.”
“Once again, the effect of screen activities is unmistakable: The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression.”
“Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, such as making a suicide plan. (That’s much more than the risk related to, say, watching TV.)”
“The rise in suicide, too, is more pronounced among girls. Although the rate increased for both sexes, three times as many 12-to-14-year-old girls killed themselves in 2015 as in 2007, compared with twice as many boys.”
“Social-media companies are of course aware of these problems, and to one degree or another have endeavored to prevent cyberbullying. But their various motivations are, to say the least, complex. A recently leaked Facebook document indicated that the company had been touting to advertisers its ability to determine teens’ emotional state based on their on-site behavior, and even to pinpoint “moments when young people need a confidence boost.””
“Fifty-seven percent more teens were sleep deprived in 2015 than in 1991.”
“Electronic devices and social media seem to have an especially strong ability to disrupt sleep.”
“Sleep deprivation is linked to myriad issues, including compromised thinking and reasoning, susceptibility to illness, weight gain, and high blood pressure. It also affects mood: People who don’t sleep enough are prone to depression and anxiety. Again, it’s difficult to trace the precise paths of causation.”
Forbes, June 30, 2017:
“The authors conclude that “it may be plausible to speak specifically of ‘Facebook Addiction Disorder’…because addiction criteria, such as neglect of personal life, mental preoccupation, escapism, mood modifying experiences, tolerance and concealing the addictive behavior, appear to be present in some people who use [social networks] excessively.””
“The more we use social media, the less happy we seem to be.”
“The authors of one study, looking at jealousy and other negative feelings while using Facebook, wrote that “This magnitude of envy incidents taking place on FB alone is astounding, providing evidence that FB offers a breeding ground for invidious feelings.” They add that it can become a vicious cycle …”
Newsweek (UK), June 14, 2018:
“Britain’s National Health Service wants companies like Facebook and Google to take responsibility for youth mental health crises caused by social media.
At a conference in Manchester Wednesday NHS Chief Executive Simon Stevens cautioned of a growing “double epidemic” of obesity and mental illness among British children. He blamed technology for fostering addictive behaviors and declining physical activity.”
“Excessive screen time can provoke loneliness, depression, anxiety and aggression in teens who rely on social media for interaction and self-worth, particularly harmful to young people who regularly compare themselves to people they follow and feel inadequate, according to a 2017 Royal Society of Public Health study called #StatusofMind.”
I am neither a psychologist nor a psychiatrist, doctor, or medical researcher. I have conducted this review because of suspicion that the scientific research in this field is suppressed and/or corrupted like climate-related sciences. Sadly, the suspicion has been confirmed.
This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
Some of you might expect a practical recommendation on this subject. I cannot give one, but Dr. Jean Twenge recommends parents to limit teenagers’ time online to about two hours a day.
Anna Vannucci , and Kaitlin Flannery. 2017. “Social media use and anxiety in emerging adults.” Journal of Affective Disorders (Elsevier). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2016.08.040
Brian Primack , Ariel Shensa, César Escobar-Viera, Erica Barrett, Jaime Sidani , Jason Colditz, and Everette James. 2017. “Use of multiple social media platforms and symptoms of depression and anxiety: A nationally-representative study among U.S. young adults.” Computers in Human Behavior (Elsevier). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2016.11.013
Brian Primack , Meghan Bisbey, Ariel Shensa , Nicholas Bowman, Sabrina Karim , Jennifer Knight, and Jaime Sidani. 2018. “The association between valence of social media experiences and depressive symptoms.” Depression & Anxiety (ADAA). https://doi.org/10.1002/da.22779
Cecilie Schou Andreassen, Torbjørn Torsheim, Geir Scott Brunborg, and Ståle Pallesen. 2012. “Development of a Facebook Addiction Scale.” Psychological Reports (Sage Journals). https://doi.org/10.2466/02.09.18.PR0.110.2.501-517
Christina Sagioglou, and Tobias Greitemeyer. 2014. “Facebook’s emotional consequences: Why Facebook causes a decrease in mood and why people still use it.” Computers in Human Behavior (Elsevier). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2014.03.003
Ethan Kross, Philippe Verduyn, Emre Demiralp, Jiyoung Park, David Seungjae Lee, Natalie Lin, Holly Shablack, John Jonides, and Oscar Ybarra. 2013. “Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults.” PLOS One. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0069841
Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe , Kathleen Clarke-Pearson, and Council on Communications and Media. 2011. “The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families.” Pediatrics, Clinical Report (American Academy of Pediatrics). https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2011-0054
Heather Cleland Woods , and Holly Scott. 2016. “#Sleepyteens: Social media use in adolescence is associated with poor sleep quality, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.” Journal of Adolescence (Elsevier). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2016.05.008
Holly Shakya, and Nicholas Christakis. 2017. “Association of Facebook Use With Compromised Well-Being: A Longitudinal Study.” American Journal of Epidemiology. https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/kww189
Jean Twenge, Thomas Joiner, Megan Rogers, and Gabrielle Martin. 2017. “Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time.” Clinical Psychological Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702617723376
Leo Goldstein. 2018. “Survey of Informed Population about Social Media Impacts on Adolescents.” defyccc.com (Science for Freedom & Humans Institute). https://defyccc.com/sipsma2018
Liuyi Lin, Jaime Sidani, Ariel Shen, Ana Radovic, Elizabeth Miller, Beth Hoffman , Leila Giles, and Brian Primack. 2016. “ASSOCIATION BETWEEN SOCIAL MEDIA USE AND DEPRESSION AMONG U.S. YOUNG ADULTS.” Depression and Anxiety (ADAA). https://doi.org/10.1002/da.22466
Mai-Ly Steers. 2016. “‘It’s complicated’: Facebook’s relationship with the need to belong and depression.” Current Opinion in Psychology (Elsevier). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.10.007
Morten Tromholt. 2016. “The Facebook Experiment: Quitting Facebook Leads to Higher Levels of Well-Being.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2016.0259