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Description: You have likely run across recent concerning discussions regarding the levels of anxiety and depression being reported among teens and emerging adults and particularly among young teen aged girls. The reported (in population surveys) jumps in anxiety, self-harm and suicidal thoughts in young teen girls since around 2010 are worrying and research and debate are pursuing the questions of why this might be happening. The explosive arrival of social media, accessed through smart phones, lines up very closely with these jumps and a large part of the current study and debate has been about whether any or most of the magnitude of these jumps can be ascribed to the impacts and effects of social media use. These sorts of generational differences issues are typically examined initially using population level surveys that involve the collection of broad sweeps of data at regular intervals (e.g., annually) from large, hopefully representative samples of teens, emerging adults or other age cohorts on interest or concern. Population data showing the sorts of jumps noted above in a relative short period of historical time (10 years) among a narrowly focused part of the population (teen girls) immediately give rise to questions like; Is it true? If so, what is causing it? What do the teens themselves think about this? And, of course, what can be done about this? The causal question is a big one, particularly when population level datasets are involved as it can be difficult to clearly show causality as opposed to correlation. Another huge issue concerns how the things that are of interest are being measured. For example, are anxiety levels being assessed in ways that previous (clinical) research has done and if not are the questions being asked valid for their stated use? Also, how is social media use being defined? Are the population datasets looking specifically at the use and the amount of use of core social media apps like Instagram, TikTok etc. or are they just looking at digital engagement that could also include television, video streaming and gaming as well as social media use? Another issue with population level research is that it lends itself to very general concerns or questions like “what is wrong with kids these days,” tends to view teens (for example) as passive victims of their age or their technologies and does not easily address important questions like: What do the teens themselves think about all this? What, if anything are they doing about it? What sorts of things can and/or should we be doing about things like social media use? We will be thinking about and working on all of these questions for a long time but for now think for a moment about the last three questions I posed just above and once you have a few thoughts lined up have a read through the article linked below to see what one researcher is doing to try and broaden our approach to and understanding of the population data on teen girls’ social media use.

Source: Not Hapless Victims: Teen Girls and Social Media, Terri Apter, Domestic Intelligence, Psychology Today.

Date: March 6, 2023

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Article Link:

The debate about the causal connections we may or may not be seeing clearly is heating up as is the push to see if we can better understand what is going on for individual teens in relation to social media and with anxiety and depression, how they are coping (as some clearly ARE), and what sorts of things can we try and or do that might help (e.g., the Disrupt Your Feed project mentioned in the article). The measures question is important as it is also a concept question about how the mood data being gathered through the [population surveys relate, if at all, to core questions of life satisfaction. We are only beginning our efforts to unpack, understand, and address current issues of teen and emerging adult mental health and wellbeing  and we clearly need to broaden our investigative focus AND to include teens as well, as suggested by the author of the linked article rather than simply viewing them as “hapless victims”.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What has been going on since 2010 in relation to teen and emerging adult mental health?
  2. What are some explanatory possibilities (hypotheses) that could contribute to or account for the observed jumps in levels of anxiety and self-harm particularly among teen girls?
  3. What do you see as some of the large and not so large research questions we should bee seeking to explore in this are in the immediate future and why?

References (Read Further):

Plaisime, M., Robertson-James, C., Mejia, L., Núñez, A., Wolf, J., & Reels, S. (2020). Social media and teens: A needs assessment exploring the potential role of social media in promoting health. Social Media+ Society, 6(1), 2056305119886025. Link

Twenge, J. M., Blake, A. B., Haidt, J., & Campbell, W. K. (2020). Commentary: Screens, teens, and psychological well-being: Evidence from three time-use-diary studies. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 181. Link

Barry, C. T., Sidoti, C. L., Briggs, S. M., Reiter, S. R., & Lindsey, R. A. (2017). Adolescent social media use and mental health from adolescent and parent perspectives. Journal of adolescence, 61, 1-11. Link

Odgers, C. L., & Jensen, M. R. (2020). Annual Research Review: Adolescent mental health in the digital age: facts, fears, and future directions. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 61(3), 336-348. Link

Twenge, J. M., Haidt, J., Blake, A. B., McAllister, C., Lemon, H., & Le Roy, A. (2021). Worldwide increases in adolescent loneliness. Journal of Adolescence. Link

Haidt, J., & Twenge, J. (2021). Social media use and mental health: A review. Unpublished manuscript, New York University. Link

Haidt, Jonathan (2021) The Dangerous Experiment on Teen Girls, Ideas, The Atlantic Link

Haidt, Jonathan (2023) After Babel, Substack Link