Social Media

Blaming Social Media for Mental Health Issues is a Cop Out to Avoid Harder Decisions

Do you think social media is mostly to blame for the increase in mental health issues, especially among young people? There are plenty of articles and people with books to sell who are more than happy to point the finger on social media, and politicians are more than happy to give the appearance of doing something for kids by blaming and banning social media use.

But is all of that noise doing anything useful?

Not according to this meta-analysis. They don’t see social media as being a massive contributor to mental health, instead seeing that some studies show a very small indication. In contrast, others show improvement in feelings of wellness.

In all, the available meta-analytic evidence suggests that SNS use is weakly associated with higher levels of ill-being [14,17, 18, 19, 20] but also with higher levels of well-being [17,19], a result that suggests that ill-being is not simply the flip-side of well-being and vice versa, and that both outcomes should be investigated in their own right [11,39]. Finally, all meta-analyses reported considerable variability in the reported associations.

What I read in this matches what I see in real life. Some people spend a lot of time on social media doing things that are bad for their mental health. (Comparing their lives to the ultra-filtered images they see on social media, filling their feed with information that is bad for their mental health, etc.) while others use social media to connect with an online support network.

Given that, the calls for banning social media use for kids seem odd, but they are based on that being the easy thing. Blaming big tech will never be unpopular, and there is a possibility that some people might be better off not using social media as much.

It’s also likely not going to make much of a difference for the vast majority of kids. The people with an agenda to push and books to sell will not mention that.

For example, we’ve seen multiple state governments set age verification requirements, ban social media use for kids younger than 13, and ban social media use for kids during certain hours. All because there is a somewhat weak connection between social media use and poor mental health. What you haven’t seen are solutions being offered to address the other causes of mental health issues, things with just as much research showing negative impacts.

I’ll give you an example:

The impact of climate change on mental health and emotional wellbeing: current evidence and implications for policy and practice.

These are the headlines from that research:

  • There is a clear relationship between increased temperatures and number of suicides;
  • There is clear evidence for severe distress following extreme weather events;
  • People who meet criteria for mental illness are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change on physical as well as mental health;
  • The climate crisis threatens to disrupt the provision of care for people with a mental illness diagnosis;
  • Climate change exacerbates mental distress, particularly among young people, even for individuals who are not directly affected (e.g. ‘eco-anxiety’).

Do we see politicians calling for doing everything we can to prevent climate change to protect the mental health of children? Or do we see them pointing fingers at technology that most don’t understand and companies we all hate anyway?

Which one is easier? Which one might do more good but requires hard decisions? That’s the definition of a cop-out.

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