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Everyone says that social media is bad for teenagers. Proving it is another matter.

There are frequent public warnings about the harm social media is doing to the mental health of teenagers. most recently From the Surgeon General of the United States – adding to the fears of many parents about how all that time spent on the phone is affecting their kids’ brains.

While many scientists share the concern, there is little research to prove that social media is harmful – or to indicate which sites, apps or features are problematic. There is also no shared definition of what social media is. This leaves parents, policy makers, and other adults in adolescents’ lives without clear guidance about what to be concerned about.

“We have some evidence to guide us, but this is a scenario where we need to learn more,” said Brown’s psychologist Jacqueline Nesi. studies Subject.

Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, warned last month that social media carried a “profound risk of harm”, but did not name any apps or websites. Their report acknowledged that “there is not a single, widely accepted scholarly definition of social media.”

Most studies look at platforms with user-generated content where people can interact. But this raises many questions. Does it matter whether teens see posts from people they know or don’t know? Does it matter if they post or just watch? Do multiplayer games count? dating apps? group texts?

YouTube shows the challenge. It’s by far the most popular site among teens: 95 percent use it, and nearly 20 percent say they do so “almost constantly,” according to the Pew Research Center. found, It has all the characteristics of social media, yet it is not included in most studies.

Some researchers speculate that YouTube may not have as many harmful effects because teens often consume it passively, like TV, and do not post or comment as often as they do on other apps. Or, the researchers said, it could carry a similar risk – it offers endless scrolling and algorithmic recommendations, similar to TikTok. There is no clear data either way.

A review of existing studies on social media use and adolescent mental health found that most of them “weak,” “inconsistent,,in a dilemma,a bag of mixed findings” And “Weighed down by lack of quality” and “conflicting evidence.,

Research has not yet told which sites, apps or features of social media have an impact on mental health. “We don’t have enough evidence to tell parents to get rid of a particular app, or cut it off after a specific number of hours,” said Sophia Choukas-Bradley, a psychologist and psychologist. director of the Adolescent and Young Adult Lab at the University of Pittsburgh.

It is also difficult to prove that social media causes poor mental health, versus being correlated with it. most studies Measure time spent on social media and mental health symptoms, and many, though not all, have found a correlation. But other researchers say that measuring time spent isn’t enough: In these studies, it’s unclear whether time spent on social media is the problem, or if it’s offset by other things like exercise or sleep. And the study is unclear, for example, if someone is spending hours on screen to escape mental pressure or seek support from friends.

Some studies have tried novel approaches around these problems. OneAt the beginning of Facebook’s rollout in the mid-2000s, college campuses were compared with those that did not have access, and found that its arrival had a negative effect on students’ mental health.

a carefully designed study, very nice project at the University of Amsterdam and Erasmus University in Rotterdam, sees both Surveys the average effects of social media on 1,000 teens and how they vary, and follows teens over time. It has been found that time spent on social media is less than a factor compared to teenagers mood while using it,

Other studies have used brain scans to show that when teens saw like or often Checked FeedsThis activated the brain’s sensitivity to social rewards and punishments.

“We often find a small, negative correlation between social media use and mental health,” said psychologist Amy Orben, who leads the Digital Mental Health Group at the University of Cambridge. “But we don’t know what’s underlying it. It could be that people who feel worse start using more social media, it could be that social media makes them feel worse, or it could be socioeconomic status.” Or anything else that is causing that link.

overall research seeks out that social media is not inherently beneficial or harmful, and that its effects depend on individuals and what they view.

“We can’t say, ‘Don’t do X, okay Y, stay away from Z,'” said Amanda Lenhart, head of research at Common Sense Media. “Unlike TV or movies, it’s impossible to know what kids will see on social media ahead of time. Sometimes it’s hair dye or dance videos, but sometimes it’s white supremacy or eating disorder content.

teenagers with certain vulnerabilities – such as those who have low self-esteemPoor body image Or social conflict — appear to be most at risk. One Use found that exposure to manipulated images directly correlated with poor body image, with girls in particular more likely to compare themselves with others. one more found Using social media to compare to others and seek approval was linked to depressive symptoms, especially for teens who struggle socially.

Social media often has positive and negative effects on the same person. Project Awesome found it’s use Connected with high levels of both depression or anxiety And Happiness or welfare

one in common sense report, teen girls with symptoms of depression were more likely than girls without symptoms to say that social media made other people’s lives better than theirs — and also more likely to say that it increased their social relationships Is. They found mental health resources as well as harmful suicide-related content on social media. Overall, the largest proportion of girls said the effect of social media features was neutral.

Academic research takes a long time – it often takes years to obtain funding, develop studies, staff, recruit participants, analyze data, and submit them for publication. Recruiting minors is even more difficult. By the time a study is finished, teens have often moved on to a different platform – most research about specific platforms, for example, is on facebook, which most teenagers no longer use. Tech companies also haven’t shared enough data to help researchers understand the effects of their products, the Surgeon General’s report said.

Experts said they would like to see research that examines specific type The content of social media, and how social media use in adolescence affects people in adulthood, what it does to neural pathways, and how to protect youth from negative influences.

Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge, psychologists who have expressed great concern about the effect of social media on teenagers Proposed An experiment in which entire middle schools were randomly assigned to avoid social media or not.

Experts agreed that waiting for research was not an option. They also mostly agreed that social media was used at some level advantageous, Professor Chokas-Bradley said, “There are harmful negative developmental implications for not using social media at all, which is where social interaction takes place.”

The researchers said social media rules should depend on the maturity and challenges of the individual teen, and added that addressing the risks should also be the responsibility of tech companies and policy makers, not just parents. They agreed on some steps parents can take now:

  • set LimitEspecially around bedtime.

  • Don’t give a young teen a smartphone right away. Start with a smartwatch or phone without internet.

  • Talk to your teen: Have them show you what they see, ask how it makes them feel, and discuss privacy and security.

  • create one family screen time plan It takes into account which activities increase stress versus provide long-term satisfaction.

  • Model responsible Internet use yourself.

It’s not about monitoring a few apps, said Caleb T. Carr, a professor at Communications In the state of Illinois: “Instead, parents should engage with their children. Like parents did pre-social media, talk about being good humans and citizens, talk about respecting others and themselves.” and talked about how his day had been.

Alicia Parlapiano contributed graphics

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