At the time social media became popular, adolescent mental health began to falter. Between 2010 and 2019, rates of depression and loneliness in the US doubled and globally, suicide rates for teens in the US and emergency room admissions for self-harm among 10- to 14-year-old girls tripled. folded up. Social scientists like me have been warning for years that the ubiquity of social media may be at the root of the growing mental health crisis for teens.
Yet when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was asked during a congressional hearing in March to acknowledge the connection between social media and these disturbing mental health trends, he replied, “I don’t think the research is conclusive on that. “
Exactly six months later, The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook had been conducting its research into the negative effects of Instagram for years, the company’s photo-sharing app popular with teens and young adults. Six internal documents summarizing the research leaked by a whistleblower were posted in its entirety on September 29, 2021.
The details are disclosed in 209 pages. They suggest not only that Facebook knew how harmful Instagram could be, but that the company was also aware of possible solutions to mitigate those damages. Facebook’s own research strongly suggests that social media should be subject to more stringent regulation and include more railings to protect the mental health of its users.
The company can do this in two primary ways: by enforcing a time limit and increasing the minimum age of users.
A ticking time bomb for mental health
Academic research shows that the more hours a teen spends on social media, the more likely they are to become depressed or to harm themselves.
This is important because many teens, especially girls, spend large amounts of time on social media.
A study in the UK found that a quarter of 15-year-old girls use social media for more than five hours a day – and 38% of those girls were medically depressed. By comparison, of the girls who used social media for less than an hour a day, only 15% were depressed.
Although internal Facebook research did not examine the relationship between time on Instagram and mental health, they asked teens what they thought were the worst aspects of Instagram. One of the things teens disliked most about the app was the amount of time they spent on it.
The teen, the report said, “had an addict’s story about their use. … They wish they could spend less time caring for it but they can’t help themselves.”
They knew they were spending too much time online, but they had a hard time controlling how much time they spent. A third of teens suggested that Instagram should remind them to take a break or encourage them to exit the app.
It would be a step in the right direction, but a simple nudge may not be enough to get teens to close the app and keep it off. And while parents can already set time limits using the parental controls included on most smartphones, many of them don’t know how to use these controls or are unaware of how much teens are on social media. spending time.
So better rules may need to be put in place, such as limiting the number of hours teens under 18 can spend on social media apps. An overnight blackout period can also be useful, as many teens use their smartphones at night when they should be sleeping.
An internal Facebook study of more than 50,000 people from 10 countries found that half of teenage girls compare their presence on Instagram to others. Those appearance-based comparisons, the study found, were much less common when users were 13 to 18 years old and among adult women.
This is important, as body image issues appear to be one of the biggest reasons why social media use is associated with depression in teenage girls. This also coincides with research I reported on in my book, “iGen,” which found that social media use is more strongly associated with unhappiness among younger teens than among older teens.
It suggests another path to regulation: a minimum age. A 1998 law called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rules already sets a minimum age of 13 for social media accounts. This limitation is problematic for two reasons. First, 13 is a developmentally challenging time, just as boys and girls are going through puberty and bullying is at its peak.
Second, the minimum age does not apply regularly. Children 12 and under may lie about their age to sign up for an account, and being underage is rarely kicked off the platform. During a Facebook event with Instagram head Adam Mosseri, young celebrity Jojo Siwa noted that she had been using Instagram since she was 8, forcing Mosseri to admit that it’s about your age. It’s easy to lie.
The problem is how to apply the age limit online for the population too young to ID. Raising the minimum age for creating a social media account to 16, 17 or 18 could solve two problems at once: it would prevent kids from signing up until they’re a little more developed and mature, And it will be easier to implement. For example, potential users may be asked to submit a photo of their state-issued ID, which most teens have up to 16.
Verifying age would also make it easier to create a safer app for younger users who could, say, hide follower counts or restrict access to celebrity accounts, both of which Facebook’s research found in girls’ body images. had a negative impact.
reduce the fear of missing out
It’s tempting to think that such rules would cause teens to riot in the streets – after all, they love being with their friends on social media. But teens interviewed by Facebook for its internal research were well aware of the downsides of social media.
“Our generation is so messed up and has more anxiety and depression than our parents. It’s because we have to deal with social media. Everyone thinks they have to be perfect,” one teenage girl told the researchers. Other teens have spoken publicly about the negative effects of social media.
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More stringent regulation would help with another issue that teens know all too well: unwritten mandates to use social media or being abandoned.
“Young people are acutely aware that Instagram can be bad for their mental health, yet they are forced to spend time on the app,” concluded Facebook’s internal research.
If age limits were enforced, peer pressure on social media would end; No or there will be some classmates. Regulating time on the app can also help if teens know their friends won’t be online constantly.
Facebook’s research demonstrates something else: The company was aware of the issues with Instagram but decided not to set these limits on its own. Congress is now contemplating taking action.
Until they do, it is up to the parents and teens to set boundaries. It won’t be easy, but teens will be safe for it.