The Media Today

Is social media harming teens? Yes and no.

April 4, 2024

Over the past decade or so, The Atlantic has published a series of articles warning of the harm that social media and smartphone apps are doing to teenagers. These articles have had headlines like “The Terrible Costs of a Phone-Based Childhood,” “The Dark Psychology of Social Networks,” “The Dangerous Experiment on Teen Girls,” and “Get Phones out of Schools Now.” These articles have one other thing in common: they were all written by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business and a coauthor of the 2019 book The Coddling of the American Mind.

Now Haidt is out with a new book (whose themes will be familiar to readers of his Atlantic articles), The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness. After 2010, there was a sharp increase in depression, anxiety, loneliness, and suicide among young people, Haidt writes; rates of depression and anxiety in the US, for example, rose by more than 50 percent over the following decade, a figure that rises to 130 percent for girls between the ages of ten and nineteen. Haidt observed similar patterns around the same time in other countries, including Canada, the UK, and Australia. And he says that they were caused by smartphones and social media. Giving young people smartphones in the early 2010s was “the largest uncontrolled experiment humanity has ever performed on its own children,” he writes in The Anxious Generation, adding that we may as well have sent “Gen Z to grow up on Mars.”

Haidt wrote last year, in another of his Atlantic essays, that smartphones and social media “impede learning, stunt relationships, and lessen belonging,” and that they have created an environment for children that is “hostile to human development.” In his view, governments, schools, and other organizations should take a number of steps in response, including banning social media for children under sixteen and removing smartphones from schools. All children “deserve schools that will help them learn, cultivate deep friendships, and develop into mentally healthy young adults,” he writes. And he notes that last year, Vivek Murthy, the US surgeon general, issued a public advisory warning that social media can create a “profound risk” of harm to the “mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”

In both The Coddling of the American Mind and The Anxious Generation, Haidt argues that social media and smartphones prevent children from understanding how to behave and survive in the “real world.” According to Haidt, a “variety of measures” show that members of Gen Z (children born after 1996) are suffering from anxiety, depression, and related disorders “at levels higher than any other generation for which we have data.” Not only that, he argues, but these problems carry over into adulthood: Haidt says that young adults are “dating less, having less sex, and showing less interest in ever having children” than prior generations, and that coworkers say they are also more difficult to work with.

Concerns about the dangers of social media are nothing new. Sherry Turkle, a social scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been writing and speaking for several decades about the negative effects of social media and internet use, arguing that such tools have replaced normal human communication and led to isolation and emotional pain through what she calls the “illusion of companionship” that the online world offers. Humans think that constant connection will make us feel less lonely, Turkle wrote in 2012, but “the opposite is true. If we are unable to be alone, we are far more likely to be lonely. If we don’t teach our children to be alone, they will know only how to be lonely.”

More recently, in 2021, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook staffer, leaked a cache of documents that she said showed that Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, ignored warnings from its own researchers about the harmful effects the latter app was having on teenage girls and their self-esteem. (I wrote about the leak at the time.) Haugen told a joint committee of the British Parliament that Facebook’s own research showed that children using Instagram were unhappy but also felt that they could not stop using it. At the time, Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Meta, wrote that it was “very important” to him that everything he built was safe for kids. But some observers believe that such problems have continued. According to The Guardian, a psychologist who advised Meta on suicide prevention quit last month, accusing the company of turning a blind eye to harmful content and of putting profit over lives.

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The warnings from Haidt, Turkle, and others appear to have been influential in some political circles. Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, recently signed a bill banning children under fourteen from having social media accounts at all and requiring children under sixteen to get parental permission first. Similar legislation has passed in Utah, Ohio, and Arkansas. Unfortunately for supporters of this kind of law, however, federal courts have blocked the legislation in the latter two states, while Utah’s version is currently being challenged. As the New York Times noted, the reason is fairly straightforward: restricting access to social media means restricting access to speech, and in most cases, the First Amendment doesn’t allow the government to do this—not even when children are involved.

Free speech aside, some researchers believe that concerns about the harms of teenage social media use are wildly overstated. In a review of Haidt’s latest book for Nature, Candice Odgers—a professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine, who researches the effects of social media on children—predicted that the book is going to “sell a lot of copies, because [he] is telling a scary story about children’s development that many parents are primed to believe.” For Odgers, however, this scary story is “not supported by science.” Haidt’s book (and a related website called After Babel) contains graphs showing that mental health problems in teens have increased along with smartphone use. But for Odgers, all these charts prove is that researchers should “avoid making up stories by simply looking at trend lines.”

Odgers writes that she and many other researchers have sought out the kinds of conclusive links suggested by Haidt and Turkle, but that those efforts have produced what she calls “a mix of no, small and mixed associations.” When links are found between depression or anxiety and smartphone or social media use, she writes, they suggest “not that social-media use predicts or causes depression, but that young people who already have mental-health problems use such platforms more often or in different ways from their healthy peers.” Odgers says that numerous studies, including an analysis of teenage mental health in more than seventy countries, showed “no consistent or measurable associations” between well-being and social media. Haidt, she writes, may be a gifted storyteller, but the story he is telling “is currently one searching for evidence.”

Odgers is not alone in her skepticism. Dylan Selterman, a psychology professor at Johns Hopkins University, wrote recently that studies of the effects of social media on the mental health of teens have shown mixed findings and “vary in quality”; therefore, no scientific consensus exists. Some researchers have found a link, but just as many have failed to find one—and in some cases, psychologists have suggested that social media might actually have positive effects. One study found that eating potatoes had a stronger negative correlation with a teen’s mental health than using social media. Aaron Brown, a statistics professor writing in Reason, argues that the evidence Haidt supplies “not only doesn’t support his claim about teen health and mental health, it undermines it,” since many of the studies he refers to are badly designed or don’t prove what they claim to. (To his credit, Haidt has maintained a Google Doc that links to many of the critical responses to his research.)

Odgers argues that two things can be true at once when it comes to social media: that there is no conclusive evidence that using these platforms is rewiring children’s brains or driving an epidemic of mental illness, but that changes to the ways these platforms work would nonetheless be wise, given how much time young people spend on them. What seems inarguable, Odgers writes, is that the US has “a generation in crisis and in desperate need of the best of what science and evidence-based solutions can offer.” But instead of searching for real solutions, she argues, we are obsessed with scary stories that are unsupported by research and in the end do little to help young people.

Other notable stories:

  • For the New York Times Magazine, Lachlan Cartwright reflects on working for the National Enquirer during the period when the publication became embroiled in the “catch and kill” scheme that disappeared damaging stories on behalf of Donald Trump, and led to Trump’s eventual indictment in New York. “Now, as a former president faces a criminal trial for the first time in American history, I’m forced to grapple with what really happened at the Enquirer in those years—and whether and how I can ever set things right,” Cartwright says. “As I’ve tried to come to terms with just how corrupt an organization I worked for in those years, I’ve taken some comfort in the fact that acting as a source for other journalists helped rebalance the scales—not only for me but for the public too.” (ICYMI, Simon V.Z. Wood profiled the Enquirer and its Trump ties for CJR back in 2019.)
  • In 2022, Chicago Public Media, which oversees WBEZ, the local NPR affiliate, acquired the Chicago Sun-Times and converted the paper into a nonprofit. The move drew some hopeful commentary, but yesterday, Chicago Public Media laid off fourteen staffers across the two organizations, citing sharp financial headwinds. In other media-business news, unionized journalists at the Rochester, New York, Democrat and Chronicle are preparing to strike starting this weekend if Gannett, the paper’s owner, doesn’t agree to a new union contract by then. And the New York Post reports that CBS News quietly shuttered its bureau in Tokyo this week, as a cost-cutting measure. In more optimistic news, ProPublica committed to publishing “accountability journalism” in all fifty states by 2029.
  • Writing for CJR, Alexandra Smith, the audience director at The 19th, explains why the outlet has changed the way it measures its readership. “We used to measure our journalism’s reach and impact with website views, visitors, and engaged time—the methods many of our funders insisted on,” but “in our current reality, journalism exists in various formats splintered across platforms and products,” Smith writes. In response, The 19th devised a new metric called “total journalism reach,” which measures not only website traffic but views of 19th journalism on other news sites, aggregation apps, and Instagram, as well as newsletter readership, event attendance, and podcast listens.
  • The Ringer’s Nate Rogers tracked down Ray Suzuki, the author of an infamous review posted by the music publication Pitchfork in 2006—and found that Suzuki was never a real person at all, but a byline the site would occasionally use as a multipurpose pseudonym. Rogers’s hunt for Suzuki, he writes, illuminated the “underground ethos” that fueled Pitchfork’s rise—“a passionate, experimental, and sometimes childish approach that feels particularly distant in 2024, as the site has found itself in dire corporate straits.” (Pitchfork was folded into GQ and lost much of its staff this year.)
  • And police in London issued an update in the case of Pouria Zeraati, an anchor for the UK-based news channel Iran International who was stabbed outside his home last week. (We wrote about the attack on Tuesday.) The investigation is ongoing, but police have established that three suspects fled the UK within hours of the incident. (The Iranian government has denied any involvement, but has often been accused of hiring proxies to attack overseas critics.) Meanwhile, Zeraati pledged that he will be back on air soon.

ICYMI: The frightening backdrop to an Iranian journalist’s stabbing in London

Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.