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Calm down everyone, social media is not killing our kids

The moral panic — triggered by flawed science — over the ‘dire’ effects of screen time won’t help address the actual challenges Web use raises for children


What parent in the modern world doesn’t worry about what their children are doing on social media? It’s a familiar refrain. Cyberbullying, pornography, predators and predatory memes of every imaginable (and often imaginary) variety, the dreaded “Fakebook” or “FOMO” phenomenon, referring to the way social media posts tend to present a glamorized version of users’ lives – driving other users to feelings of inadequacy and despair.

In a terrifying article, published by the prestigious scientific journal ‘Clinical Psychological Science‘, the authors seemed to confirm the worst. The title says it all: “Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time.” The net effect of teens’ social media use, the study suggested, was to increase your child’s chances of suffering from depressive symptoms, and subsequently attempting to kill themselves. The study’s vast data set – more than half a million respondents who took part in major studies by the Centers for Disease Control and the University of Michigan – lent the results credibility. The terrifying bottom line: The longer your kids spend on social media, the greater their depressive tendencies.

Reports about the study spread like wildfire. It quickly became the most-read paper ever published in Clinical Psychological Science. Media reports, citations and of course social media sharing drove home to parents that they should fear their children’s time on Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook, especially in the age of the always-connected smartphone that lets them remain plugged in to social media nearly constantly.

So imagine our surprise when we read the paper and discovered that nearly all of its conclusions are either flawed or incomplete: that its method for measuring “depression,” as the title suggests, didn’t actually measure depressive symptoms, but a more general sense of wellbeing; that its data for “screen time” is based on decade-old, pre-mobile survey questions about the frequency of visits to social-networking websites whose multiple-choice answers top out at “almost every day”; that it actually found near-zero correlation between rising social media use and declining mental health among boys (for the initiated into the mysteries of statistics, r=0.01), and only slightly more but still extremely little correlation among girls (0.06); and the icing on the cake, that adolescents with higher rates of social media use were more likely to display positive signals of emotional wellbeing, like richer real-world social lives and involvement in sports and exercise, than to report the depressive tendencies that made the headlines.

Scientists read studies like the one published in 2017 with a healthy skepticism, as keen to find errors as they are to learn its conclusions. That’s why Clinical Psychological Science also published our critique of the study’s methods and conclusions in May of this year. That’s how scientific advances happen: one scientist tries to put forward an interpretation of the data, and his or her colleagues helpfully jump in to demolish that interpretation. It’s not always pleasant, but as Karl Popper, one of the greatest modern philosophers of science, put it, this is how science advances, “through a process of trial and error, of conjecture and refutation.”

Unfortunately, the general public is not always attuned to this scientific tete-a-tete, and many people walked away from this research convinced that social media is linked to depression and suicide.

We’ve therefore come to set the record straight. Put simply, and using the same data employed by the original study, it appears highly likely that new media screen time, by itself, does not pose a danger to adolescents. In the data, the risk for adolescent depression rises not with social media use, but when the adolescent avoids positive and constructive daily behaviors, such as physical exercise or interactions with friends, both online and offline, and when he or she lacks community support or a sense that life has meaning.

None of this means that teenagers aren’t struggling in the internet age. The new era of social media raises complicated parenting challenges. Yet, moral panic over social media use is not going to help us address these challenges. If anything, it will make matters worse. Instead of empowering parents to help their children develop healthy responses to the new online landscape, it could contribute to feelings of guilt and lead parents to restrict social media use in ways that disrupt their children’s healthy social lives, some of which takes place online and correlate with their offline social life and, ultimately, happiness.

Dr. Yaakov Ophir is a clinical psychologist and a post-doctoral researcher at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. In his research, Dr. Ophir focuses on the relationships between technology and psychopathology. In his clinical work, he provides psychotherapy to children and adolescents.

Dr. Hananel Rosenberg is an associate professor at the school of communication, Ariel University. Dr. Rosenberg focuses on the psychosocial implications of smartphone use on groups and individuals, including mainly children and adolescents.

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