The Eternally Radical Idea

‘Coddling’ the Afterword Part 2: It’s Social Media — More Than Screen Time — That Matters for Mental Health

September 23, 2021

Jon and Greg wrote an afterword for “The Coddling of the American Mind” in the summer of 2021 to be added to a second edition of the book in 2022, but it grew so long that it would have raised the page count and cost of the book substantially. Instead, the nine sections of the afterword will be released in nine parts in the coming weeks, here.

Previously:


We argued in previous chapters that the two main causes of the rise in depression and anxiety were overprotection (including paranoid parenting and the loss of free play) and the fact that Gen Z (born 1996 and later) was the first to get smartphones and social media in middle school. Several researchers challenged our claim that smartphones were harmful,[1] and in response Jon and Jean Twenge created an open-source literature review and invited other scholars to add studies and criticisms. 

What eventually became clear is that we were wrong to suggest that parents should focus on the total number of hours of “screen time.” That turns out to be an unhelpful construct since it includes an enormous variety of activities, some of which enable kids to connect to each other in healthy ways (including Zoom, FaceTime, texting, and most multiplayer video games), some of which are educational (Khan Academy, many YouTube videos), and some of which are harmless (watching TV, or videos on Netflix). Studies that examine the correlation of “screen time” or “device use” and mental health generally find small and inconsistent relationships. 

Social media, however, is different. When you zoom in from examining all “screen time” to just social media time, the correlations with poor mental health get stronger. When you zoom in on girls and social media, the effects get stronger still, and seem to be strong enough to be a contributing factor to those “hockey stick” shaped graphs, which started their rise around 2012, just as American and British teens were becoming daily users of social media. These correlational studies are backed up by experimental studies that asked people to reduce or eliminate their social media usage for at least a week. Most such experiments found that reductions led to improved mental health, relative to those in the control condition who made no changes. And just as we are posting this section of the afterword (Sept. 2021), an exposé in the Wall Street Journal reports that Facebook’s own research in 2018 showed that Instagram is bad for teen girls’ mental health. Drawing on reports and screen shots from internal presentations provided by whistle-blowing employees, the article states that “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” and “[a]mong teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram.”

On the basis of this new evidence, we must revise the advice we offered to parents in Chapter 7. If you are concerned about depression and anxiety, then don’t focus on “screen time.” There may be reasons to impose time limits, since digital devices are so engaging that they often push out all other activities, including physical activity and face-to-face socializing. But we cannot say that research reveals a substantial relationship to mental health, even from five or six hours of daily “screen time.” And what was true before COVID is doubly true in the COVID era: “real life” is ever more entwined with screens and online activities.

There are many kinds of social media platforms, and each offers benefits as well as costs.

Social media, on the other hand, is more clearly and consistently associated with harm, particularly for those who are most vulnerable to anxiety or to doubt about their appearance. The debate among social scientists is not settled, and there are several experts who claim that there is no evidence of harm. But we believe that the combination of correlational and experimental evidence — plus Facebook’s own research — is now strong enough to justify part of the advice we gave in Chapter 7 about “limiting or prohibiting the use of platforms that amplify social comparison rather than social connection.” This does not mean banning all social media accounts until the age of 16. There are many kinds of social media platforms, and each offers benefits as well as costs. The most damaging seem to be those that encourage kids to post photos or videos of themselves to be rated by strangers. Instagram, for example, encourages girls to show off their photo-edited beauty, perfect lives, and fun frolics with friends. Their posting behavior then gets reinforced, like pigeons in a Skinner box, by hundreds of small rewards in the form of likes, shares, comments, and followers. Even though the culture and overall vibe of Instagram is much nicer than, say, the viper pit of Twitter, such frequent social comparisons and quantified popularity updates may be harmful. 

Unfortunately, if you prevent your 11-year-old from lying about her age to open an Instagram account, as most of her friends have done, then you are cutting her off from a major area of social life. The social media platforms have created a dilemma for families in which each kid believes that he or she is better off opening an account, whereas all would be better off if nobody opened an account until a later age. This is why we believe a major structural change is needed to free everyone from the trap and to give parents more say in what companies do to their kids. 

The US Congress should rectify the mistake it made in 1998 when it lowered the proposed age of “internet adulthood” from 16 down to 13. That age — at which teenagers can open accounts without parental permission and give away their data and their privacy — was chosen without regard to mental health, yet parents mistakenly think of it as a “PG-13” label. In 1998 we didn’t know what was coming for teens, but the experiment on Gen Z shows really bad results. Congress — and legislatures around the world — should act. 

For more on the topic of social media and mental health, please visit this page on our website: www.thecoddling.com/better-social-media

Next week: Part 3: Increasing Persecution on Campus


[1] See especially studies by Amy Orben and Andrew Przybylski, linked from our online literature review.