Is Social Media making our kids depressed?
Why are rates of depression rising in teenagers? Why do we see this especially in girls? Could social media use be one of the causes, and if so, how could we find out?
Rates of depression have been rising. Over the last few years, we have seen this jump especially in teenagers, and more in girls than in boys. Are our children more depressed than ever? What’s going on, and what could be the cause of this change?
A significant jump
Data from the US and the UK show that rates of depression among children aged 12-17 increased by between 50-80% in the period from 2012 to 2017. That is a significant jump in such a short time. We also see a general rise in depression in adults, but the biggest rise by far is found for teenage girls in those countries.
Searching for a cause
Is this perhaps just a reflection of greater awareness of mental health issues, especially in the younger generation? Possibly yes. But some other data points show that it’s not just awareness of existing conditions that has increased. For instance, in the UK, rates of hospital admissions of girls due to self-harm went up by over 60%. It seems unlikely that this can fully be explained by an increase in awareness, especially if we look at the rapidness of these jumps (within 3-4 years). If we assume there is another cause that can explain part of this rise in depression, where should we look? What changed in the lives of these teenagers between 2012 and 2017? This is where we enter more speculative grounds and we have to look at correlations.
Loneliness has been shown to predict depression. How have subjective feelings of loneliness changed over the years? Teenagers in the US report the highest rates of loneliness in over 30 years, with a jump of over 50% between 2007 and 2016. Why would kids these days feel so much more lonely than just 15 years ago?
Enter the new Social Media giants: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat.
The use of smartphones and social media apps in teenagers has skyrocketed since 2010. Could there be a connection? A study in 2016 looked into the odds of having depression and anxiety for young adults who use social media. They found that highly connected social media users were twice to three times more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety than the control group of ‘unplugged’ adults. This does not prove causality. We don’t know whether people who use social media a lot get more depressed, or whether depressed people are just more likely to use social media. But there seems to be a connection.
So why are girls more vulnerable than boys? One reason could be that girls use social media differently from boys: they are known to have a stronger focus on peer-group feedback and acceptance in the form of likes. Boys, on the other hand, often use new media to play games with friends.
Sounding the alarm
The truth is that we can't be sure at this point whether social media use causes depression and anxiety in teenagers. We lack the necessary longitudinally controlled studies to establish causality. But some scientists are worried and are sounding the alarm. We should pay attention to how younger generations use new technology, and what kind of influence this rapidly changing way of socializing has on their development and mental health.
So should we ban all social media? Of course not! Do we need more research? Yes, we do!