The high price we pay for social media

14th July, 2022

Sitting exams is unpleasant at the best of times, but my daughter believes she has extra cause to complain. Two of her A-level papers are scheduled for the same time, so she must take a break between them with only an invigilator for company. “I can’t even have my phone,” she protests.

Because I am the worst parent in the world, I opine that it would be very good for her mental health to be without her phone for a couple of hours. She could challenge me to prove it, but more sensibly, she rolls her eyes and walks away.

Ernest Hemingway once declared that “what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after”. I’m not sure if that stands up to philosophical scrutiny, but I do think it’s worth asking ourselves how often we feel bad after spending time on social media. I usually feel disheartened and a little self-loathing after doomscrolling on Twitter in a way that I never feel after reading a book or a decent magazine.

That’s the experience of a middle-aged man on Twitter. What about the experience of a teenage girl on Instagram? A few months ago the psychologist Jonathan Haidt published an essay in The Atlantic arguing that Instagram was toxic to the mental health of adolescent girls. It is, after all, “a platform that girls use to post photographs of themselves and await the public judgments of others”.

That echoes research by Facebook, which owns Instagram. An internal presentation, leaked last year by Frances Haugen, said: “Thirty-two per cent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” In the UK between 2003 and 2018, there was a sharp increase in anxiety, depression and self-harm, and a more modest increase in eating disorders, in people under the age of 21. In absolute terms, anxiety, depression, self-harm and eating disorders were higher in girls than boys.

Similar trends can be found in the US and elsewhere in the English-speaking world. And a team of psychologists including Haidt and Jean Twenge has found increases in loneliness reported by 15 and 16-year-olds in most parts of the world. The data often seem to show these problems taking a turn for the worse after 2010.

There are other explanations for an increase in teen anxiety (the 2008 banking crisis; Covid-19 and lockdowns; school shootings; climate change; Donald Trump) but none of them quite fits the broad pattern we observe, in which life started to get worse for teenagers around 2010 in many parts of the world. What does fit the pattern is the widening availability of smartphones.

This sort of broad correlational data is suggestive of a problem, but hardly conclusive. And a large and detailed study by Amy Orben and Andrew Przybylski of the University of Oxford found very little correlation between the amount of time spent on screens and the wellbeing of adolescents. This study seems to me more robust and rigorous than most, with one major weakness: it lumps together all forms of screen time — from Disney+ to Minecraft, TikTok to Wikipedia.

Three recent pieces of analysis approach the subject quite differently. One from Luca Braghieri and two fellow economists looks at the campus-by-campus rollout of Facebook across US colleges between early 2004, when it was launched at Harvard, and late 2006, when it was made available to the general public. Because this rollout is sharply staggered, it creates a quasi-randomised trial, which is a better source of data than broad correlations.

The researchers find a large negative effect of the launch of Facebook on mental health — somewhere between one-quarter and one-fifth as bad as the effect of losing one’s job. The Facebook of around 2005 is not the same as the social media of today: it was probably less addictive and less intrusive, and was not available on smartphones. If it was bad then, one wonders about the impact of social media now.

The other two studies were charmingly simple: they asked experimental participants, chosen at random, to switch off social media for a while — while a control group continued as before. The larger study by Hunt Allcott, Braghieri and others asked people to quit Facebook for four weeks during the 2018 midterm US elections. A smaller but more recent study by researchers at the University of Bath had people eschewing all social media for a week.

The results in both cases were striking, with clear improvements in a variety of measures of happiness, wellbeing, anxiety and depression. It seems that a break from social media is good for your soul.

Intriguingly, the largest effect of all in the Allcott and Braghieri study is that people who had temporarily left Facebook for the experiment were much less likely to use it afterwards.

I don’t know whether a two-hour break from her phone really would be good for my daughter’s mental health. Nor do I think the wellbeing case against social media is proven beyond doubt. But that should not be a surprise. It took time to demonstrate that cigarettes caused lung cancer. If social media causes depression and anxiety, it will take time to demonstrate that, too. But at this stage, one has to wonder.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 17 June 2022.

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