Apparently not, at least not in a clinical sense, according to an article recently published by Oxford University researchers which focused on the impact on teenagers.

The article leads off with the masterful understatement that “[a]ny understanding of 21st-century adolescence would be incomplete without an appreciation of social-media platforms and other digital technologies, which have become an integral element of young people’s everyday lives over the past few decades.” At the same time that there has been an expediential rise in the use of social media, there also has been a well-documented decline in the mental health of adolescents. Is this cause or correlation?

The authors point out that parental apprehension about the behaviour of their teenage children waxes and wanes as novel forms of entertainment and social technologies are invented and adopted by young people. In the early 20th century, it was dime novels; a generation later, the immersive nature of radio dramas was thought to make young listeners vulnerable to ill health, sleep loss, and anxiety; and then video games were indicted as creating a generation of violent criminals.

The problem is that when fears emerge about a new technology, worries about previous technologies are largely abandoned without an agreement on—or good data indicating—whether, why, or how the previous technologies were or were not harmful.

So is social media different?

The authors looked at data produced from three US and UK studies of adolescent mental health, with nearly 500,000 participants. The authors extracted data on measures which are indicators of mental health such as depression, conduct problems (‘I get angry a lot’), emotional problems (‘I worry a lot’) and suicidality. The studies also collected data on usage of television (which the authors used as a baseline for the previous round of social anxiety over technology) and social media. The authors’ main goal was to investigate how associations between adolescents’ technology use and mental health might change over time.

The results were surprising. While conduct problems were positively related to both TV and social media (i.e. indicative of ‘causation’), depression’s relation to both was practically zero. Emotional problems were also related to TV and social media, but suicidal ideation and behaviour were reliably associated only with digital-device use. But even then, the authors cautioned that the magnitude of the relationships was ‘very small’.

They also found that depression’s association with social media and TV had decreased over time. There also was no credible change in suicidal ideation for social media over time. But the association between emotional problems and social media had increased, but again by a very small magnitude. Conduct problems associated with TV and social media showed no change over time.

The analysis also found not credible differences between boys and girls in the relationship between mental health and use of social media.

The authors concluded that “[o]verall, the ideas that technologies people no longer worry about are becoming less harmful or that technologies people worry the most about now are becoming more harmful were not supported in the data we analyzed.”

However, the authors noted that the two observed patterns of change moving in opposite directions - the increased association between social-media use and emotional problems and decreased association between technology engagement and depression - hint at the changing roles of emerging technologies in young people’s lives. The authors argue that much of the research on the impact of social media takes a too static view:

“..the technologies themselves are developing. This is particularly true for video gaming and online platforms that are, essentially, continuously updating virtual social hubs. New business and monetization models, features, play modes, and social trends emerge regularly. In other words, material changes in how technologies affect individuals and societies may therefore not be marked by an obvious stepwise shift between two successive forms of technology, say from radio to television. Instead, more subtle advances within a single technological milieu might drive profound changes.”

The authors posit that the increase in the association between social media and emotional problems over time could be because “the technological advances in social-media platforms could be interrelated with their use as part of social support seeking and emotional coping processes.” In other words, that could be seen as good news because teenagers are ‘confiding’ more in social media, rather than ‘bottling it up’. Of course, there also could be a self-reinforcing cycle as confiding anxiety online begets more anxiety, for the posting teenager and for those reading the posts.

The authors tempered their conclusions with the caution that knowledge of social-media and digital-device use is necessarily limited by their comparatively brief existence and the results may partly reflect the shorter observation window in comparison with TV.

However, there is still a cautionary tale here. Concerns that technology is becoming both more prevalent in young people’s lives and likewise more harmful to their mental health have gained traction in recent years. These concerns are driving Governments to consider policy and regulatory interventions to control social media. The authors acknowledge the validity of concerns for the mental health of young people from extensive online use, but they say their research shows there needs to be more rigorous underpinning to the proposed policy interventions.


Read more: There Is No Evidence That Associations Between Adolescents’ Digital Technology Engagement and Mental Health Problems Have Increased