One Person’s Depressed is Another’s ‘Inconclusive’

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We all know that social media is playing a big role in our kids’ lives. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 90% of teens ages 13-17 have used social media. In fact, reports say that just among 8th and 10th grade students, daily social media use jumped from 61% to 89% among girls, and from 46% to 75% among boys, between 2009 and 2017. And I’d bet you a lifetime supply of Cheetos and Mountain Dew that in the COVID locked-down days of 2020 those percentages grew exponentially.

Let’s face it, though, we get a lot of mixed signals when it comes to how all that social media use plays out with kids. Many people (and even some studies) proclaim social media is the best thing for young people since, well, anything. But others say social media use comes with a number of problems.

I recently spotted an NPR article that quoted U.S. congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Washington) as saying that her biggest fear as a parent isn’t gun violence or drunk driving, but actually the impact social media has on her kids. “Teen depression and suicide rates have been rising for over a decade, and she sees social apps as a major reason,” the article noted.

Rep. McMorris Rodgers confronted Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other social media power players in a Capitol Hill hearing in March of this year. She sited a number of statistics that pointed to a stark rise in teen depression and self-harm and spoke of how studies seem to connect that rise to social media.  Zuckerberg’s response? “I don’t think that the research is conclusive on that,” he said.

Zuckerberg also declared that his company had put extensive research into any potential mental effects that Facebook and its various platforms have on kids. But when McMorris Rodgers’ staff followed up after the hearing, she said the company declined to share any of its research.

“I believe that they have done the research. They’re not being transparent,” McMorris Rodgers told NPR.

The NPR article went on to address concerns raised by a variety of experts and academics. And across the board they all pointed to the fact that there is at least a correlation between social media and declining mental health in teens.

One comment that stood out to me was that of Brian Primack, who leads the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas. Primack used to study the detrimental effects of tobacco but spends his time investigating the effects of social media these days (which says something in itself). A study he published last year found that young adults who increased their social media usage were likely to become depressed over that same time period.

“There is an association between the two,” Primack told NPR. “Just meaning that if you put people into equal buckets in terms of how much social media they use, the people who use the most social media are also the people who are the most depressed.”

How does the depressive effect Primack’s talking about actually happen? Well, numerous studies have pointed to insecurities, anxieties and depression that arise in vulnerable teenagers who tend to compare themselves to the perfect bodies or perfect lifestyles they see online. Then there’s the correlation between an overconsumption of social media and a lack of sleep and physical activity, both of which lead to depression at any age.

A 2018 University of Pennsylvania study stated that anxiety is “inextricably linked” to the use of social media, and reducing social media use to 30 minutes a day resulted in a significant “reduction in levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness, sleep problems, and FOMO (fear of missing out).” And, of course, teens suffering from deep depression and anxiety are more likely to engage in self-harming, dangerous behaviors.

So, then the question becomes: What can we do? With alarm bells ringing about the possible problems in the social media mix, and social media giants proclaiming No, no, don’t look behind that curtain, the evidence is inconclusive, where does that leave a concerned mom and dad?

Well, it’s always a good idea to help your kids make healthy decisions. And you can start down that path by sitting down and talking honestly and openly about the pluses and minuses of social media. And one of the first solid steps is to gather and share the research that’s out there. If nothing else, reading what the many studies and researchers have to say about the topic will make you better informed.

Next, you can talk about some healthy boundaries for your whole family. It may seem like overkill to some, but if you track everyone’s social media use for a while it will help make everyone in your family aware of just how much time they’re investing in (or wasting on) things like Instagram or Facebook. And guess what, that definitely applies to Mom and Dad, too. You need to deal with your phone the way you’d like to see your child deal with theirs.

You should also resist the urge to put on your lecture hat. Social media can be a huge part of some kids lives. And frankly that’s part of the problem. But what those kids need most is someone to understand the social pressures they may be feeling. Why is their social media connection so important? Empathy and understanding from a mom or dad can go a long way. And maybe the whole family can work together to replace some of the fun side of what social media regularly provides. Can you come up with activities that make your family members forget about their phone for a while?

Hey, one thing all the experts agree wholeheartedly on is the fact that breaking the social media habit will take time and effort. (Which, again, probably ought to tell us something.) But if teens can experience the plusses—the improved mood, self-esteem and maybe even better sleep patterns—that can come from cutting back on the constant flipping and scrolling, something closer to a healthy balance can result.

For more information and insight check out Focus on the Family’s Alive to Thrive materials.

Bob Hoose

After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.