Nick Hurzeler: Linking social media and mental health is oversimplification

Social media can make people feel alone, or make them feel supported.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Gov. Spencer Cox answers questions from the media, during a news conference with Attorney General Sean Reyes at the Capitol, on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023.

Gov. Spencer Cox announced that Utah will be pursuing lawsuits to protect children from the effects of social media on mental health.

These lawsuits against social media won’t improve Utah’s mental health, because social media is not a significant cause of mental health problems. The Utah Legislature is simultaneously considering legislation that will worsen the state’s mental health.

Linking social media and mental health is a powerful political talking point, but is an oversimplification. Social media’s effect on us is still a heavily debated topic in the scientific community because studies have found both positive and negative effects. So what are we to make of this information?

Social media use may be a predictor of mental health problems but it’s not the cause. The positive and negative effects of social media arise from how it is used. For example, comparing yourself with others on social media has negative effects on mental health. However, when users do not compare but share in the happiness of their friends, it has a positive impact on mental health.

In addition, the amount of time spent on social media has little effect on mental health. This seems particularly problematic for the lawsuit as screen time seems to be the main focus of Cox’s statement. What would be far more helpful in improving Utah’s mental health would be a health campaign on how to use social media to reap its positive effects.

Minority groups in particular such as Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) and LGBTQ+ individuals who both suffer from higher rates of mental health problems have much to gain from positive social media use. These minorities can often not feel welcome in society. Social media allows them to create communities where they can find belonging and filter out those who would harass them. This takes work on the user’s part to moderate their own social media feed but those who engage in this practice have fewer mental health problems than those that do not.

Social media is not ruining our children’s mental health, so what is? The panic over critical race theory has led to strained race relations which have increased hate crimes, so this would certainly increase mental health problems in the BIPOC population. In addition, an invigorated moral panic against the LGBTQ+ community, including the recent SB16 bill that bans gender-affirming care for transgender individuals, will shake that community with suicide and other mental health problems.

Utah ranks 46th in the country concerning gender equality. While the abortion trigger law may be welcomed by some, it is anxiety-inducing for others. We also have a domestic violence problem. At least one in three women will be victims of domestic violence, likely more due to underreporting. These factors influence mental health among women.

When looking at youth mental health, 63% who completed a SafeUT mental health service survey said that they did not want to talk to a guardian about their mental health or that the guardian was aware but would not help. Because of Utah law in most cases, youth cannot receive mental health care without guardian approval.

Utah is a religious state and, while faith and spirituality can be beneficial to mental health, they can also create culturally unique problems.

Many people of faith seek mental health advice from faith leaders who don’t have professional experience in mental health. Some individuals may be referred to mental health professionals inside a faith-based network, but there is also concern that these networks may place greater emphasis on upholding the faith’s doctrines than treating patients using the most current mental health practices.

The mental health issues in Utah are more complicated than just social media and are far more complex than summarized here. Social media acts as an effective political scapegoat, one that can play the role of the bad guy that needs to be dealt with by political superheroes in order to solve our problems. However, this issue has no big bad guy; it’s multifaceted and systematic, and if we don’t acknowledge that Utah’s mental health will continue to suffer.

Nick Hurzeler

Nick Hurzeler, Taylorsville, is studying psychology at Southern New Hampshire University.