The controversy around youth mental health and social media

It seems that every generation laments the state of the youth at some point in their evolution into oldness. But what if — and just hear me out for a second — the kids are actually not all right?

There’s quite a bit of data piling up on the mental health of young people and the picture is worrisome. Whether you look at anxiety or depression or suicide or even quality of friendships, the trends are not good, and this seems to be true in many different countries at the same time.

So how should we make sense of that?

Jonathan Haidt is a professor at NYU and the author of a bestselling new book called The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness. If you’re looking for a master variable to explain what the hell is happening with kids, Haidt says you should look directly at smartphones and social media.

The book has provoked a ton of commentary and criticism, which isn’t all that surprising. This is a huge topic of importance for basically anyone with children, and there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about some of the causal connections here. But Haidt has a fairly convincing story to tell and it’s worth engaging with whether you fully buy his argument or not.

As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pandora, or wherever you find podcasts. New episodes drop every Monday.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you lay out the data we currently have on the mental health of young people? How bad is it?

There have always been concerns about youth mental health, and there’s been a slow rise since around the 1950s in depression and anxiety. As we get wealthier, as we get further away from difficult times, people get more fragile. But there was a big spike in suicides and other things in the ’70s and ’80s and then that receded. And actually, if we go into the ’90s and the 2000s, the millennials, when they were teenagers, had better mental health than Gen X. 

So things were pretty stable from the late ’90s through 2010 in terms of levels of depression, anxiety, and self-harm. But then all of a sudden, right around 2012 and 2013, you get hockey stick shapes in most of the graphs related to anything to do with internalizing disorders — anxiety, depression, and especially self-harm. 

What’s your case that smartphones and social media are driving this decline in mental health?

My theory in brief is that humans had a play-based childhood for millions of years. We’re mammals. All mammals have a play-based childhood. We gradually deprived kids of that starting in the 1990s. By 2010, kids have not had a full normal suite of outdoor activity unsupervised, but their mental health didn’t go down during that period. It’s only one phase. The second phase is when we get the arrival of the phone-based childhood. That’s really what did them in, and it’s both of these causes together.

As a social scientist, I share the view that things are usually complicated. It’s usually all kinds of interactions. But sometimes there are things like leaded gas. Leaded gas had a huge impact, especially on Gen X. It had a pervasive effect on kids around the world, especially on boys, because it disrupts the frontal cortex development. So you get a huge crime wave in many, many countries around the world. 

Then we banned leaded gas around 1981 and then crime plummets 15 or 17 years later all around the world. So I hope that my fellow social scientists will say, “Yeah, usually it’s not monocausal, but you know what? Sometimes it could be.” We should be open to the possibility that it was one big thing. 

Okay, now what’s the evidence? We use experiments to establish causality. If you have a random assignment and one group is asked to get off social media and the other isn’t, you look at that and you can see the causation. As we’ve gone on in time, there are a lot more experiments, there are a lot more correlational studies, there are a lot of longitudinal studies, and there are now a lot of quasi-experiments where you look at what happens when high-speed internet comes into one part of British Columbia a couple years ahead of another part of British Columbia, things like that.

So I’ve organized all of the studies, and I did this work with Zach Rausch and Jean Twenge, and guess what? The correlational studies are overwhelming. There are some that don’t show an effect, but the great majority do, and it’s usually larger for girls. The longitudinal studies are a little different. It’s like if you use more social media at time one, does that mean you’re more depressed at time two? And most of those studies suggest that kind of linear causal effect. A few show a reverse, but most suggest that. 

So the skeptics now are saying, “Well, there’s no evidence.” Wait a second. There’s a lot of causal evidence just in the experiments. We can debate whether you’re convinced by them, but you can’t say there’s no evidence. There are now a lot of experiments. It’s not just correlational data.

One of the counter arguments is that it’s true that reported cases of anxiety and depression are up, but a big part of that is that people are more willing to be transparent about their struggles now because it’s no longer a source of shame or stigma, and that’s a good thing. That wouldn’t explain everything, but perhaps it explains some of it?

I would assume so, but now that I think about it more, I’m actually a little more skeptical. Because when I was growing up in the ’70s, my mother sent me to a psychologist for a brief time. It was very shameful. I didn’t want anyone to know. There was real shame to any sort of mental health issue in the ’70s and into the ’80s. 

By the ’90s, however, the stigma began to drop, and by the 2000s it’s really dropping. Yet we don’t see the numbers rising. We don’t see young people saying, “Oh yeah, I’m more anxious, I’m more anxious, I’m more anxious.” We don’t see that. By the time you get to 2012, mental health issues have been largely de-stigmatized.

Is it possible that some of these associations between social media use and psychological distress are a reflection of kids who maybe already have mental health issues and they’re disproportionately using these platforms more than their more healthy peers? Maybe we’ve just created platforms that tease out the problems that were already there?

Well, it’s not exactly teasing out. It’s amplifying. Long before social media, some 2- or 3- or 4-year-olds were anxious and you could see it. They’re exposed to something new, they pull away. So kids who are prone to anxiety, there are some suggestions that they are more likely to move to social media, in part because it’s easier than talking to people. So it’s true that some portion of these correlations can be reverse correlation.

Have there been more general changes in diagnostic criteria and the way hospitals and clinics code these sorts of things that might explain some of the spikes in reported cases?

There was a big change that would affect things globally around 2015, that’s true. But yet we don’t find a big jump in 2016. We found it in 2012 and 2013. So skeptics will find some study in New Jersey that seemed to show that maybe suicide rates didn’t go up in New Jersey. Well, okay, fine. One study found that in New Jersey. But the CDC data is pretty damn clear about the whole country. So yeah, I think the skeptics are often cherry-picking. They’re finding the occasional study that doesn’t find an effect.

The broader point about smartphones creating problems for all of us — fragmenting our attention, pulling us away from the real world and real connections — we know it’s not good, and I don’t need a peer-reviewed study to tell me that it’s not good.

In this case, it’s not like we’re reviewing for an academic journal and we’re saying, “We’re not going to let anything in until we’re certain.” The risk of not acting if I’m right is beyond comprehension, another generation lost to mental illness and reduced learning.

It’s always good that we have skeptics. They keep me and Jean Twenge honest. They push us on certain points. But to say, “There’s no evidence and we don’t think we should do anything until we’re certain,” that’s a misunderstanding of the role of science in society. Science doesn’t require absolute certainty. It doesn’t even require settled science before we can act. The tobacco industry, the oil industry — they’ve tried to muddy the waters [on tobacco use and climate change respectively] and say, “Oh, it’s not settled science. There’s some contradictory findings.” Now there, the cost of acting was quite expensive, but we did it anyway. Here the cost is nothing. That’s why I think we can do it.

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