Yes, social media really is a cause of the epidemic of teenage mental illness

Yes, social media really is a cause of the epidemic of teenage mental illness

Jon Haidt writes:

For centuries, adults have worried about whatever “kids these days” are doing. From novels in the 18th century to the bicycle in the 19th and through comic books, rock and roll, marijuana, and violent video games in the 20th century, there are always those who ring alarms, and there are always those who are skeptics of those alarms. So far, the skeptics have been right more often than not, and when they are right, they earn the right to call the alarm ringers “alarmists” who have fomented a groundless moral panic, usually through sensational but rare (or non-existent) horror stories trumpeted by irresponsible media.

But the skeptics are not always right. I think it is a very good thing that alarms were rung about teen smoking, teen pregnancy, drunk driving, and the exposure of children to sex and violence on TV. The lesson of The Boy Who Cried Wolf is not that after two false alarms we should disconnect the alarm system. In that story, the wolf does eventually come.

The question before us now, on the topic of teens and social media, is this: Are the skeptics correct that we are going through just one more groundless moral panic over teens and tech in which adults are freaking out while, in fact, the harms are so minimal that they shouldn’t be a cause for worry? Or did the wolf really arrive around 2012, and has been mauling young people ever since via their smartphones and social media accounts? (Of course, there are researchers who reside in the space between these two perspectives.)

Psychologist Candice Odgers has taken the skeptical side for many years now (along with researchers including Amy Orben, Andrew Przybylski, Jeff Hancock, Chris Ferguson, and Aaron Brown), while Jean Twenge and I have been writing as alarm ringers. It has been a normal and productive academic debate. Engagement with each other’s arguments is how science makes progress. Even if we never convince each other, the broader scientific and policy communities tune in to the debate, and eventually, they’ll move one way or the other.

Odgers recently stated the skeptics’ case in an essay in Nature titled The Great Rewiring: Is Social Media Really Behind an Epidemic of Teenage Mental Illness? The essay offered a critique of my recent book, The Anxious Generation. Odgers’ primary criticism is that I have mistaken correlation for causation and that “there is no evidence that using these platforms is rewiring children’s brains or driving an epidemic of mental illness.” She also warns that my ringing of a false alarm “might distract us from effectively responding to the real causes of the current mental-health crisis in young people,” which, she suggests, are social ills such as racism, economic hardship, and the lingering impact of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and its disparate impact on children in low SES families. [Continue reading…]


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