Teen’s Use of Social Media, Facebook & Instagram Associated with Depression & Isolation
When NPR journalist Anya Kamenetz, whose husband works for Facebook, wrote a recent article about how “Facebook’s own data” doesn’t show things being quite so bad for teens who engage in social media use on their platform, she suggested that the evidence wasn’t all that conclusive on this topic.
Yet if she did anything more than a shallow dive, she would’ve unearthed dozens of peer-reviewed scientific studies conducted over the past decade about teens’ use of social media. She wouldn’t have relied on simply talking to an expert or two, and promoting an un-peer-reviewed, non-scientific white paper on the topic.
Since Kamenetz didn’t think it was important to offer a balanced view on whether teens may suffer from social media use of Instagram and other platforms, I thought it may be helpful to review some of the research in this field.
A Quick Review of the Research into Social Media Use Among Teens
Let’s be clear about what the research does show — increased screen time is generally associated with greater feelings of isolation, depression, and in teens, self-image issues and even self-harm. In just a single research database I examined, 283 scientific papers, book chapters, and peer-reviewed journal articles were given on a search of “social isolation instagram adolescents.” Using other terms, such as depression instead of “social isolation” brings up hundreds more.
For instance, “In two nationally representative surveys of U.S. adolescents in grades 8 through 12 (with 506,820 subjects) and national statistics on suicide deaths for those ages 13 to 18, adolescents’ depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes, and suicide rates increased between 2010 and 2015, especially among females” (Twenge et al., 2017). And not be some small amount, either. The suicide rate for young girls increased by 65 percent, while depressive symptoms increased by 33 percent.
You know what also increased significantly from 2010 to 2015 — teens’ social media usage, especially that of Facebook and Instagram. While it’s easy to say “correlation doesn’t equal causation,” it’s harder to make that argument with a straight face when a whole generation of teens is growing up on a platform with this kind of increased association with feelings of isolation and depression.
This finding is not at all surprising considering a literature review carried out in 2018 (Lissak) found, “Depressive symptoms and suicidal behaviors are associated to screen time induced poor sleep, digital device night use, and mobile phone dependency.”
Psychological researchers have been documenting and publishing their findings about these associations since before 2010 — they are neither new nor novel.
A 2016 study by Lin et al. found in a survey of 1,787 young adults (ages 19 to 32), increased social media use was significantly associated with increased depression.
A 2020 study (Longobardi et al.) of 345 Italian teens found that as teens became more popular on Instagram, they appeared to be more susceptible to increased use of the app and experienced more cyber-bullying and negative, aggressive behavior on the platform. This had a negative impact on their psychological well-being. Those who use the app more passively didn’t appear to experience these same risks. The less they used the app, the happier they generally were.
If a teen falls into the Instagram trap of trying to become more popular on the app or to become an influencer, it becomes a self-reinforcing behavioral pattern hard to break free from. The teen then becomes more dependent on the app to provide positive reinforcement and greater social interactions. This dependency makes it harder to interact authentically with other peers face-to-face, as they resort to the app for validation.
How to Help Offset the Risk
To be sure, not all of the research suggests there’s a dose-dependent relationship among social media use and depressive symptoms, or symptoms of social isolation or suicide. For instance, in a large-scale survey conducted from 2009-2017 of 74,472 8th and 10th graders, the researchers did not find any association between daily social media use and depressive symptoms (Kreski et al., 2020). Using social media alone probably isn’t a significant risk factor for most teens.
How a person engages with social media, however, does seem to make a difference.
One of the findings of researchers (Twenge et al., 2017) was that not everyone suffered from the same impact of social media use. Teenagers who relied primarily on social media for their social interactions with peers were at greater risk for depression and suicidal thoughts. Those who maintained high levels of face-to-face social interactions with their friends didn’t show an increase in depressive symptoms.
No Surprises Here
It’s not surprising that the research literature appears to back a link between a teen’s mental health and engaged use of an app like Instagram. While not directly causative, the evidence is pretty clear that it’s not simply depressed teens seeking out the use of Instagram to feel a little less isolated or depressed.
Instead, what we see is a consistent connection in multiple studies over time showing that the more a teen uses and is actively engaged in an app like Instagram, the more they’re likely to acknowledge depressive feelings, feelings of isolation, and suicidal thoughts.
What is surprising is that NPR would allow a Facebook apologist to not only write an article that was published under their brand, but to apparently not even give it a cursory editorial review. The article lacked a consistent standard in which to compare the evidence offered (on one hand, suggesting that peer-reviewed research was important, but later on in the same article promoting data that wasn’t published in a peer-reviewed journal). And the fact that a part of the author’s family’s income was derived from Facebook was included only in a small editorial note at the very end of the article.
Like most people, I just expected more from NPR.
Keski et al. (2020). Social Media Use and Depressive Symptoms Among United States Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 68.
Lin et al. (2016). Association between social media use and depression among U.S. young adults. Depression Anxiety, 33, 323-331.
Lissak, G. (2018). Adverse physiological and psychological effects of screen time on children and adolescents: Literature review and case study. Environmental Research, 164, 149-157.
Longobardi et al. (2020). Follow or be followed: Exploring the links between Instagram popularity, social media addiction, cyber victimization, and subjective happiness in Italian adolescents. Children and Youth Services Review, 113.
Twenge, J.M. et al. (2017). Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time. Clinical Psychological Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702617723376