How bad is social media, actually?

The scientific community is still divided on the effects of social media on your mental health

February 21, 2024
Darkly lit photo of a woman staring at her phone leaning on a couch. She looks bored.
Social media may just be a scapegoat for our other worries, say some psychologists [Photo Credit: mikito.raw | Pexels]

On Oct 24, 2023, 41 states banded together to sue the international tech giant Meta for intentionally making social media addictive for children and causing them to have worse mental health. New York City has now joined them. And some would say these states have a point. Haven’t we known for years that social media is terrible for us?

Science paints a more complex story. 

On a global scale, greater use of Facebook is not linked to any effect on well-being, says a study from Oxford University published August 2023. Andrew Przybylski and Matti Vuorre, psychologists at Oxford’s Internet Institute, analyzed well-being indicators among residents of 72 countries, alongside data that tracked how much people in those countries used Facebook.

Looking at data from almost one million people over the course of 12 years, they found no link between using Facebook and experiencing worse mental health. In fact, in a given year, if a country increased the proportion of its citizens using Facebook, “it was likely that the well-being levels in that country were also slightly elevated,” Vuorre says. This is completely contrary to the conventional wisdom that social media has a negative association with mental health.

These findings confirmed the results of many other studies over the years, including ones from Brock University and Oxford, that have either found positive links between social media and mental health, or none at all. 

Studies that take a more granular look at the connection between social media use and mental health, however, do sometimes manage to find a negative correlation. As Vuorre puts it, “this field is full of extremely mixed results.”

One such study was conducted recently by Andrea Irmer and Florian Shmiedek at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. They conducted an experiment over two weeks, where a group of 200 children aged 10 to 14 reported on their social media use and mental health. On average, those who used social media more were more likely to think other people had better lives than they did — called upward comparisons — and to report more negative well-being. These correlations were also consistent in each child on a day-to-day basis. On a day where a child used social media more than average, they “had stronger upwards comparisons and felt worse than they generally do,” says Shmiedek. Other studies also show correlations between social media use and poorer mental health.

So given the mixed evidence on the effect of social media, why has all the focus been on the negative findings like the one from the small study in Germany? Christopher Ferguson, a psychology researcher for over 20 years, has a theory: a media-based moral panic. Ferguson says there is a pattern where an older group of people are uncomfortable with new technologies that they haven’t grown up with. They get scared, and blame current societal issues on a new thing they don’t understand. 

For other examples, Ferguson says, just look back through history. “Twenty years ago, we kind of had a similar thing over particularly violent video games,” he says. There was a time when everyone was worried about television, and before that, comic books. “And for a while, everybody agrees that [the] thing is bad. And then after about 20 years, everybody thinks that [the] thing is okay again,” says Ferguson.

Because of this push from some older generations, the media tends to only cover the studies that support the panic, which can lead to a cycle where no one is aware that other studies even exist, says Ferguson. The older people have more money, more power and vote more, so they are listened to. 

That’s what he thinks is going on with the current lawsuit against Meta. “Politicians have to make us [older people] happy,” Ferguson says.

Another important thing to note, in any scientific study, is that just because two things (like social media use and poor mental health) are correlated, that doesn’t  mean that we can definitely know one caused the other, or even which one caused which. “You could take Beyoncé’s salary year to year, and correlate that against the temperature of the Earth, you know, and you will find a probably pretty strong correlation,” Ferguson says, “but we wouldn’t say Beyoncé is literally making the world hotter … maybe figuratively, but not literally.” Scientists and lawmakers should always use caution when exploring why two variables are linked.

It might take years for this lawsuit to play out, but Ferguson says he wouldn’t be surprised if social media issues eventually make their way to the Supreme Court. He doesn’t know exactly how it would go, but a video game violence lawsuit titled Brown v. Entertainment Merchants made it to the Supreme Court in 2011. The court failed to find a link between violent video games and harm to children, and ruled that the sale of violent video games was legal. Ferguson will be watching to see if history repeats itself — or not.

About the Author

Kohava Mendelsohn

Kohava is a science and technology writer from Toronto, Canada. She has an undergraduate degree in Robotics Engineering from the University of Toronto. She loves explaining math, science, and technology concepts to all ages and experiences level, and believes anyone can learn anything if it’s taught well.


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