Sarah M. Coyne: Banning social media won’t solve adolescents’ problems

Some are indeed vulnerable, but others may find a safe space online.

(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.

I recently attended a symposium on mental health and social media that was organized by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox. Cox threw down the gauntlet: “There is a compounding effect [of social media] that is impacting all of us and I am deeply worried about it. I know we have some social media companies in the room, we’re glad you’re here. We are putting you on notice. You have some options. You can fight, and that’s fine. We’re ready for the fight. Or you can join us and be part of the solution.”

The message from several speakers at the conference was very clear: Social media is harming our youth and is responsible for the increase of mental health struggles over the past decade. We should ban social media and every responsible parent agrees with us. Social media companies are greedy and knowingly did harm, comparable to the executives who perpetrated the opioid crisis.

Social media has become the ultimate scapegoat of our time. As large social media companies rake in billions, it is easy to cast them in the role of the villain. Adolescent anxiety and depression have risen over the past decade, and we want someone to blame.

States are suing social media companies for being responsible for mental health problems in their community. Legislators across the country are debating whether social media is responsible for the increase of mental health problems in youth. In my own state, there is a bill being introduced that was considering an outright ban of social media for anyone under the age of 18. The bill was softened slightly to require parent ID for any underage youth. Other states have introduced similar bills to significantly limit youth access to social media. As a collective nation, we are at fever pitch and out for blood.

There is just one problem with this collective anger: It’s not supported by the research.

I am a social media scholar and have been studying the impact of media on children for 20 years. The collective research does not support banning social media and suggests it might harm some youth in the process. Most serious social media scholars are left shaking our heads with the over-confident and definitive statements we are hearing from politicians and the press.

The public discussion is dominated by some loud voices who are quick to point fingers but slow to consult the full body of research which shows considerable nuance and complexity.

Can we just stop and take a breath for a minute? Consider that perhaps we might be going the wrong direction?

The kids are struggling, but that doesn’t mean that taking away social media will fix anything. Here are several reasons to believe that social media is not the cause of all our youth’s ills:

1. The link between social media and mental health is not as big as you think it is.

In fact, many studies show that is might even be negligible. For example, meta-analyses bringing together all the studies on this topic tend to bring back correlations of around .10 depending on the study. Like the difference in height between a 15-year-old and a 16-year-old girl. This is really quite small considering the attention we have been giving this question.

Indeed, our own research examined the time spent on social media, depression and anxiety across the entire course of adolescence. We did not find a noticeable effect of social media on mental health when examined at the individual level. I was surprised and it went against my hypothesis (gasp!). But I had to face the realization that this effect just isn’t as big as we thought it was.

The effects become larger (around .25, maybe comparable to the difference in height between a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old girl) when we consider a teen who says they have “problems” with social media. Reducing problems around media (as opposed to the sheer time by banning social media) may be a more prudent way forward. (More on this below.)

2. The small and inconsistent findings might be about individual differences

Some recent work out of the Netherlands suggests that the vast majority (92%) of adolescents have either a neutral or positive experience in terms of mental health after using social media. Using an assessment that measures how people feel in the moment, they were able to capture how adolescents felt while using social media. For the vast majority? They were just fine.

However, there is the question of that 8% that struggle after being on social media. There are many explanations why this might be the case. They could have had negative experiences online, such as being cyberbullied or excluded. They could be high on levels of rejection sensitivity, being fine-tuned to notice a social slight. They might have pre-existing body image concerns and are spending all their time on pro-anorexia sites. Or it might be something completely different. What the research suggests is that the vast majority adolescents do quite well on social media, while a small minority do not.

3. Banning (or severely limiting) social media will likely hurt our most vulnerable adolescents. It might even be fatal.

When we think about depression and anxiety from a multifaceted lens, we recognize that some adolescents are much more vulnerable than others. These teens are often those who experience minority stress — unique stressors that occur in an adolescent’s environment as a result of their minority status. This might include LGBTQ+ teens who might be the only “out” person at their school, who have to tolerate hearing gay slurs as they walk down the hallway. Or Black adolescents growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood who experience subtle (and not so subtle) racism on a daily basis.

Research suggests that social media can provide a safe haven for these adolescents — a place where they can truly belong. Where they see others who are “like them.” Where they can find a real community who understands the stressors they go through each day. Having a sense of belongingness is a huge protective factor against suicide. Thus, stripping away this sense of safety might have significant (and even deadly) unintended consequences for these youth that are already at risk.

Youth might also be turning to social media to cope with chaos and struggles in their lives. It might be that a teen has headphones on and is on social media to escape hearing his parents argue in the next room. Another might be getting support from online friends over something hard that happened at school. Yet another might struggle with social anxiety and experiences school as excruciating, yet has found online friends that make them feel like they can finally be themselves. The experience of social media is extremely complex and a complete ban will likely take away some truly positive coping skills for many.

4. Education, instead of fear, is likely the answer

In our recent study, we found that time spent on social media had no effect on adolescent outcomes. However, body image was twice as good for teens who said they attended a school with a strong literacy program that helped them become healthy users of media. Depression, emotional problems, and conduct problems were also all reduced in such schools.

Instead of focusing so much on getting kids to put down their phones, instead of threatening to take phones away as a punishment, instead of overreacting as a country and banning a potentially useful tool that is a huge part of an adolescent’s social world, might we invest in education instead?

Imagine a world where every student had classes on digital literacy from an early age. Where they were taught not only how to use media, but how to truly interpret it and to become critical thinkers of their own media use. Imagine that adolescents utilized social media in ways that helped their mental health instead of hurt it. Where they had tools and best practices to absolutely thrive in a digital environment. Instead of being afraid and throwing out the baby with the bathwater, let’s step it up America. Let’s invest in educating our youth at a national level, relying on balanced and accurate research to empower youth to truly take charge of their social media experiences for good.

Banning or severely limiting social media among adolescents is not the way forward and will have serious unintended consequences. It would be like letting a 16-year-old child drive without first having them take driver’s education. Instead of taking the keys away and randomly giving them back someday, can we please teach our kids to drive in this digital environment? It might just save a life.

Sarah M. Coyne

Sarah M. Coyne, Ph.D., is a professor of human development and associate director of the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. She has researched the impact of media on children and families for over 20 years and regularly speaks to youth and parents about healthy social media use.