Young people are suffering from depression like never before. According to the American Psychological Association, more teenagers and young adults have experienced “serious psychological distress, major depression or suicidal thoughts” in the late 2010s than in the mid-2000s. And we’re not seeing the same trend in people over the age of 25.
A lot of people point to the rise of social media as the likely culprit, but the experts appear to be split. For every study you find that blames Facebook and Twitter, you’ll find another that says digital technology has nothing to do with mental health. Who are we to believe? Take your pick.
“Social media invites comparison,” said Jean Twenge in a conversation with NPR. Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University. “It’s not in real time. It invites anxiety over the likes and responses that you’re going to get.”
But considering how many adults use social media as well, why don’t we see the same rise in mental health disorders among older people? Twenge says adults have had more time to make real-life connections, while kids have developing brains and are more reliant on the digital world to build their social life.
The Child Mind Institute supports that idea. “The less you are connected with human beings in a deep, empathetic way, the less you’re really getting the benefits of a social interaction,” says Alexandra Hamlet, a CMI clinical psychologist. “The more superficial it is, the less likely it’s going to cause you to feel connected, which is something we all need.”
And when you spend all your time worrying about things you see on social media, like an event you weren’t invited to, or perhaps a conversation that you’ve been left out of, you’re going to feel more alone. “[Fear of missing out] is really the fear of not being connected to our social world,” says Dr. Jerry Burick, another clinical psychologist from CMI. “And that need to feel connected sometimes trumps whatever’s going on in the actual situation we’re in.”
“The more we use social media,” says Burick, “the less we think about being present in the moment.”
But not everyone agrees. There are those who say it isn’t social media itself that is the problem, but the side effects of spending the bulk of one’s time online. When you spend hours scrolling through Instagram, for example, you might not be participating in activities that tend to keep depression at bay – like sleeping.
“Our results suggest that social media itself doesn’t cause harm,” says Russell Viner, the lead author of a study out of University College London, “but that frequent use may disrupt activities that have a positive impact on mental health such as sleeping and exercising, while increasing exposure of young people to harmful content, particularly the negative experience of cyber-bullying.”
According to New Atlas, a study out of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro tracked about 400 adolescents over several years and found zero relationship between the mental health and the rise of social media. In fact, the study revealed there’s no correlation between mental health and the use of technology at all. The researchers even found that the more text messages a kid sent, the fewer depression symptoms were reported.
“Contrary to the common belief that smartphones and social media are damaging adolescents’ mental health, we don’t see much support for the idea that time spent on phones and online is associated with increased risk for mental health problems,” says Michaeline Jensen, a psychologist and one of the Greensboro researchers.
Jensen’s colleague, Candice Odgers of the University of California at Irvine, suggests that we should stop arguing back and forth about whether social media is to blame. Instead, she says, we should be looking at how we can help our troubled teens.
“It may be time for adults to stop arguing over whether smartphones and social media are good or bad for teens’ mental health,” says Odgers in UCI News, “and start figuring out ways to best support them in both their offline and online lives.”