It May Be Time to Ban Social Media for Kids

A new study confirms what we’ve all suspected — social media harms kids’ happiness.

Whenever a study I’m discussing touches on an area which might present a conflict of interest, I need to be transparent about it. And here, I have a big one. A 12-year-old daughter.

This week, a study examining the effect of social media on adolescents, appearing in Nature Communications.

Growing up is hard. But there is a rapidly growing volume of data suggesting that social media, particularly for young girls, makes growing up harder. Social media takes the regular stresses of adolescence — the clique-forming, the gossip, the relationships — and turns the volume up to 11.

Beyond that, the digital nature of social media means that every social faux-pas can be shared, amplified, reacted to — literally immortalized.

Still, the literature regarding the impact of social media has been somewhat limited methodologically. In particular, cross-sectional studies lack the ability to identify which direction the arrow of causality points. It shows a link between greater social media use and less happiness in kids, but are kids less happy because they are on social media more? Or are kids on social media more because they are less happy?

In the Nature Communications study, Dr. Amy Orben and colleagues leveraged a large, longitudinal UK dataset to start to tease out the answers.

Over the past decade or so, families in the UK were surveyed about their overall life satisfaction and a variety of other factors, including their self-reported social media use. It’s a rather large dataset comprising over 70,000 individuals.

To start simply, the authors present a cross-sectional analysis. As you can see, the broad trend in this graph is that life satisfaction decreases as you get older. Sorry kids.

But within various age groups, you see how social media use modifies that effect. Look here at the life satisfaction scores of kids from age 11 to 14.

Lower life satisfaction within each age group as quintile of social media use increases

Within any given year, the kids who use more social media (that’s higher numbers on the bottom of the X-axis) have worse life satisfaction scores — dramatically worse in the case of girls (in red there). That highest-use group, by the way, was reporting 7 or more hours of social media per day, which is, yes, fully possible for a 12-year old girl to achieve.

But cross-sectional data only gets us so far. To better tease out causality, the authors looked at how social media use in one year would translate into life satisfaction the following year. And vice versa, how life satisfaction in a given year would translate into social media use in the next year.

They found evidence of both effects, in fact, creating something of a feedback loop. More social media use leads to less life satisfaction which leads to more social media use and so on.

They were also able to examine when adolescents are most sensitive to the adverse effects of social media.

What you see here is that, among girls, ages 11 to 13 seem to be the prime time for social media to damage life satisfaction, while the age of greatest sensitivity is 14–16 years in boys.

Impact of more social media use (lower is worse) across age groups

There’s also an interesting period of heightened adverse effects of social media in both sexes around age 19, which probably corresponds to the time when young men and women are moving out on their own for the first time. A research question for another day, perhaps.

I should point out that there is social media and there is social media. The study doesn’t have the ability to differentiate between the affects of Facebook or Instagram, Snapchat, or even group-texts, which seem to be how my daughter spends most of her time.

The data is fairly consistent and believable. The question really is what do we do with it. I think more and more research is making it clear that social media has profound negative effects on adolescents — particularly girls.

Social media use seems to pose a real risk to young people, and I have to ask — what is the potential benefit? What purpose does it serve?

An article in the Washington Post last week pointed out that our children’s mental health has been on the decline for a while — not just due to the COVID pandemic.

Social media is a part of this. It’s time we admit it.

Is social media a public health threat? Should social media be treated as we treat cigarettes — forbidden until you’re old enough? I honestly think the kids wouldn’t mind. The reason kids want to be on social media is because everyone else seems to be on social media. Maybe it’s time that changes.

A version of this commentary first appeared on Medscape.com

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F. Perry Wilson, MD MSCE

F. Perry Wilson, MD MSCE

Medicine, science, statistics. Associate Professor of Medicine at Yale University. New book “How Medicine Works and When it Doesn’t” for pre-order now.