Social media: good or bad for our mental health?
In the latest episode of MQ Open Mind, we spoke to Amy Orben, a research psychologist who’s looking into the effects of social media and technology on human interaction, wellbeing and relationships. Here’s what she said…
1. It would surprise people to see how little evidence we have about the effects of social media on our mental health.
Social media is incredibly complex, and people use it in a lot of different ways. For that reason, it’s been complicated to find definitive answers about whether it’s good or bad for our mental health as the evidence will be very nuanced. The measures we have been using are also incredibly limited because we don’t yet have access to the data of social media companies.
We’ve seen so many headlines saying things like ‘social media causes depression’ and ‘social media causes self-harm’. But without doing a proper experiment where we divide people into groups and give them social media for their whole life or not, we can’t use the word ‘cause’ – it’s so loaded.
2. If we look at the correlation between social media and wellbeing, it’s actually very small. But one thing I can say with confidence is that we're beginning to see differences in how girls and boys react to social media.
In girls, there's evidence that social media is causing very small decreases in mental health – but decreases in mental health are also causing more social media use, so there’s a cycle that we don’t see as much in teenage boys. Furthermore, if you were to pick a teenage girl and tell me how much technology she uses on a daily basis, I can only predict about 0.4% of the variance in her wellbeing compared to other teenagers– so there are a lot of other factors in the environment that will probably play a bigger role.
Going forward, we need to think about the types of adolescents that are most negatively affected by social media so we can target them as soon as possible.
3. The evidence we have about young people and screen time is nowhere near as horrible as the media portrays.
There’s still a lot we need to find out, but what we do know is that there’s a diversity in how different young people respond to different screens. I often say that parents would never trust me as a scientist if I came up to them and said, “I know exactly how your child is going to react to eating a gram of sugar”, because it will be different for each child.
For now, while we don’t yet have all the evidence, it’s key to say that parents are in the prime place to make these decisions, because they know their children best. They, or we as adults, need to reflect on how we’re using social media and empower those who can make the best decision.
The Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Dame Sally Davies, has also provided some good advice, even though it is not backed up by strong evidence, saying you should have breaks in between technology use, not use phones and mobile devices at the dinner table and keep screens out of the bedroom at bedtime.
4. Going forward, researchers need to find a way to work with social media companies and their data.
If we could get access to this data in an ethical way, with consent from the people using social media, researchers could finally start to see the full picture. It would help to answer questions about the implications that different platforms have on our mental health – I think there definitely will be differences, but they haven’t been studied to an adequate amount yet. This is something me and my colleagues are working on, and it would be a huge step forward for the field.
5. There are a lot of things that can influence the mental health of our population, and social media is a really easy target.
But there’s a sea of other things that could be improved and should be holding more of the conversation. I get exasperated sometimes when politicians say that social media use is the only thing that must change to ensure all young people’s mental health will be fine. We need to think a lot more about social responsibility and the complexity of the environment people are growing up in. That, alongside getting enough money for research or getting access to data, are all things where politicians can be helpful.
Last updated: 19 June 2019