Many blame social media for poor mental health among teenagers, but the science is murky

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If Jordy had a switch to instantly shut down social media, she would flip it.

“I’d switch it off, 100 per cent, even if it was for a week, just so people could have that taste of what it would be like,” she said.

Now in her first year out of school, the 18-year-old studies nursing at university and works at a local cafe in Charleville, a small town 745 kilometres west of Brisbane, where she has lived most of her life.

Like Australian teenagers everywhere, she has another life online.

“It’s like a second world, really,” she said.

“You have reality and then you have social media — two extremely different things.”

At the moment, she spends an average of five-and-a-half hours a day on her phone, but it’s lower than her peak during high school.

“When I first got a phone I was on it constantly, probably like seven hours, eight hours a day,” she said.

Jordy at work, standing at the coffee machine steaming some milk in a small silver jug.

Jordy says social media is like a “second world” that does not reflect reality.(ABC News: Chris Taylor)

She has cut back since then because that second world was not always kind, especially when it came to body image — and despite the fact her parents were always strict about phone usage.

“Growing up, I’ve always been a big girl … and a sporty person — I’m pretty healthy,” she said.

“But when we see images, it tends to be just very thin, skinny people.

“It can just take you down, with the click of your fingers.”

Jordy sits at a dining table looking at her smartphone.

Jordy knows that social media often reflects the highlights of people’s lives.(ABC News: Chris Taylor)

Jordy was also being bullied at school, but social media meant it could happen around the clock, no matter where she was.

“A group of boys at my school had tagged me on TikTok telling me to go kill myself,” she said.

“It was just so heartbreaking. I was just like, ‘I go to school with you every day, we’ve never had an issue in the past.’ That’s probably the worst thing that’s happened.”

Jordy’s mental health was tanking, and she began to withdraw from activities she used to love, like footy training or seeing friends.

“I just felt so scared to talk to my mum … I was just like, ‘I don’t want my mum to think I’m using social media the wrong way’,” she said.

No matter how bad things got, logging off still felt impossible.

“It was like that fear of missing out, I guess. I think that’s the addiction thing, right?” she said.

“You sort of just have to be on your phone to socialise.”

Does more screen time cause worse mental health in teenagers?

Teen mental health has deteriorated at an accelerating rate in the last two decades — more or less exactly since social media and smartphones started to become widespread in 2007.

For obvious reasons, many people, especially concerned parents, have leapt to the conclusion that tech is the culprit.

A generic photo of two teenage schoolkids sitting side by side, using their phones.

Scientists are still trying to learn more about the link between social media and mental health.(ABC News: Mary Lloyd)

But the science is surprisingly murky, even though there is a link — research shows more screen time is associated with higher rates of depression in adolescents.

“What we know about the link is there’s a link, and that’s pretty much what we know,” said Aliza Werner-Seidler, a senior researcher at the Black Dog Institute.

“We have really good correlational data, there is a strong linear relationship, particularly in young girls.

“What we don’t know is about causation — so is young people’s mental health leading them to spend more time on social media and screens, or is it actually the other way around?

“We don’t know the direction of the effect.”

Dr Werner-Seidler is one of thousands of researchers around the world trying to solve that mystery.

Jordy sits at a dining table looking at her smartphone

Jordy says she used to spend up to eight hours a day on her phone.(ABC News: Chris Taylor)

Even if many people are convinced they already know the answer because of their own experience online.

“Personally I would say that it’s both,” Jordy said.

After a session doomscrolling perfect bodies on TikTok, she “would feel horrible” about herself.

“But then I’d continue to use it and then it made me feel even worse.”

After 17 years, why don’t we have the answers yet?

Despite 17 years of widespread smartphones and social media, researchers still don’t have enough data to definitively say whether they’re to blame for deteriorating teen mental health.

Getting those long-term studies done is particularly difficult because trends, algorithms and habits change so quickly.

“When I started this work, TikTok wasn’t even a thing … Snapchat, really has only taken off in the last decade or so,” Dr Werner-Seidler said.

“It’s a very fast-moving field. And so it’s very, very difficult to get a handle on it before the next thing comes out.”

A generic stock photo of a teenage school girl leaning against the lockers on her phone.

There is a strong correlation between time spent on social media and poor mental health, especially for girls.(ABC News: Mary Lloyd)

Part of the problem is that studies have focused on overall screen time, instead of looking at what people were doing online.

“Are they FaceTiming with Grandma? Are they viewing distressing content? Are they being groomed online?” Dr Werner-Seidler said.

“This idea of nuance and it matters what people do and how they do it and how long for and with whom.

“We can’t tell any of this information just by looking at how long young people spend on screens.”

What social media companies know but don’t say

The National Mental Health Commission has been investigating the relationship between digital tech and teen mental health.

On Friday it released its findings after months of consultation, noting the lack of longitudinal evidence and calling for further research to be made a “top priority”.

Frustratingly for Dr Werner-Seidler, and other researchers in this area, the data that might solve the mystery does exist — but they can’t access it.

“Big tech companies have all of this information,” she said.

“If they were to share it with academics and scientists, we would be able to learn so much more, so much more quickly.”

Jordy sits at a dining table looking at her smartphone

Experts say there’s a link between social media and worsening mental health.(ABC News: Chris Taylor)

The data that has so far emerged in other ways, courtesy of lawsuits and whistleblowers such as Frances Haugen in 2021, has been disturbing.

Ms Haugen, a former Facebook employee, revealed detailed internal research showing Instagram was harmful for teenage girls.

One slide from an in-house presentation reportedly said: “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.”

The peak body for Australia’s technology industry — whose members include social media companies Meta, Snapchat and TikTok — has defended the sector’s contribution to public research.

“DIGI’s relevant members have long-standing research and community partnerships in mental health and online safety, and specific policies … informed by that work,” a spokesperson said.

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Depending on the platform, those policies might include parental controls, avenues to report inappropriate content and seek help, customisable settings, and age limits.

Adherence to those age limits has been mostly voluntary, and the federal government is spending $6.5 million on an age verification trial in the hopes of introducing a higher standard of proof.

Some social media companies are trying to get ahead of any future legislation.

Facebook’s parent company Meta announced this week it would no longer allow Facebook users to edit their birthdate to say they’re over 18 without verification — a feature that’s been in place on Instagram in Australia since last year.

A window for change

The public and political mood when it comes to big tech has rarely been darker.

“I’ve never seen the appetite [for change] as strong as it is right now,” said Alice Dawkins, executive director of Reset Tech Australia.

She says there’s a window for change with the federal government currently reviewing its key legislation, the Online Safety Act.

“Our online safety laws are geared at protecting people from [one] another online … [but] there’s virtually nothing that can be done about protecting people from the tech itself.”

Alice Dawkins sits at a kitchen table in front of a laptop and iPad

Alice Dawkins says there is appetite for change.(ABC News: Nicholas Martyr)

As it stands, companies are rarely obliged to share information on how their products, and not just the people using them, may cause harm.

“It’s highly exceptional — think about other sectors, like food, like medicine, like toys — it’s incredibly routine in those sectors to have risk assessment and risk mitigation of products,” Ms Dawkins said.

“There’s compounding public awareness of the problem … it’s never been a more appropriate time for the government to legislate.”

Dr Werner-Seidler said that for now, internal data was being used by big tech to keep users scrolling for as long as possible.

“These are commercial big companies [and] they use a whole bunch of engagement strategies to keep people coming back, and that is their goal,” she said.

The conversation you need to have with your kids

Jordy eventually found the courage to tell her mum what was happening to her online.

“When it got really bad I was just like, ‘Mum, I need to show you … this is what’s happening.'”

After that, her parents insisted she cut back her screen time but, despite everything that had already happened, she still fought it.

“I was so mean to her … I would get so angry, I’d be like, ‘Mum, it’s not your life,'” she said.

Jordy sitting on the bank of a river in rural Queensland.

Jordy pictured with her siblings, is glad she’s cut back on using social media.(ABC News: Chris Taylor)

But that was before Jordy noticed a big improvement in her mood and her grades.

“I’m thankful every day that my mum did what she did.

“You can’t ever change the fact that your kids are going to use social media,” said Jordy, although boundaries were useful in her case.

“Saying to your kids, ‘What are you using social media for? Why do you have to be on social media?’

“For parents out there that are struggling, I think it’s that conversation you need to have with your kids.

“As a kid, you’re going to get frustrated, but it’s really just parents trying to protect their kids from what’s out there.”

Mental health disorders among young people have soared by nearly 50 per cent in 15 years. The ABC is talking to youth, parents, and researchers about what’s driving this pattern, and what can be done to turn things around.

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