There have been increasingly loud public warnings that social media is harming adolescent mental health, most recently from the US Surgeon General, adding to many parents’ fears about what it is doing to the child. your children’s brain all the time they spend on phones.

While many scientists share the concern, there is little research showing that social media is harmful, or indicating which sites, apps, or features are problematic. There is not even a shared definition of what social networks are. It leaves parents, lawmakers, and other adults in teens’ lives without clear guidance on what to worry about.

“We have some evidence to guide us, but this is a scenario where we just need to know more,” said Jacqueline Nesi, a Brown psychologist who studies The topic.

Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, warned last month that social media carries a “profound risk of harm,” but did not name any apps or websites. His report acknowledged that “there is no single, widely accepted academic definition of social media.”

Most studies look at platforms with user-generated content, where people can interact. But that raises many questions. Does it matter if teens see posts from people they know or not? Does it make any difference if they post or just view? Do multiplayer games count? Dating apps? Group texts?

YouTube illustrates the challenge. It’s the most popular site among teens by far: 95 percent use it, and nearly 20 percent say they use it “almost constantly,” Pew Research Center found. It has all the hallmarks of social media, but has not been included in most studies.

Some researchers speculated that YouTube may not have as many detrimental effects, because teens often consume it passively, like TV, and don’t post or comment as frequently as they do on other apps. Or, the researchers said, it may carry the same risks: It offers endless algorithmic and scrolling recommendations, similar to TikTok. There is no clear data either way.

Reviews of existing studies on adolescent social media use and mental health have found that most of them are “weak”, “inconsistent,” “inconclusive,” “a bag of mixed results” and “overwhelmed by lack of quality” and “conflicting evidence.

Research has not yet shown which social media sites, apps or features have which effects on mental health. “We don’t have enough evidence to tell parents to get rid of a particular app or cut it off after a set number of hours,” said Sophia Choukas-Bradley, a psychologist and director from the Adolescent and Young Adult Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh.

It is also difficult to prove that social media causes poor mental health, rather than being correlated with it. Most studies measure time spent on social media and mental health symptoms, and many, though not all, have found a correlation. But other researchers say that measuring time spent isn’t enough: In these studies, it’s not clear if time spent on social media is the problem, or if it’s time spent on other things, like exercising or sleeping. And the studies obscure, for example, if someone spends hours in front of the screens to escape mental duress or to seek the support of friends.

Some studies have tested novel approaches around these problems. OneEarly in the launch of Facebook in the mid-2000s, he compared college campuses that had received access to it with those that had not, finding that its arrival had a negative effect on students’ mental health.

A carefully designed study, awesome project at the University of Amsterdam and the Erasmus University of Rotterdam, look at both the average effects of social media on 1,000 teen respondents and how they differ by individual, and follow teens over time. She discovered that time spent on social media is less than one factor than teenagers moods while using it.

Other studies have used brain scans to show that when adolescents I looked at the likes or frequently reviewed feedings, activated the brain’s sensitivity to social rewards and punishments.

“Most of the time we find a small negative correlation” between social media use and mental health, said Amy Orben, a psychologist who heads the Digital Mental Health Group at the University of Cambridge. “But we don’t know what’s under it. It may be that those who feel worse start using social media more, it may be that social media makes them feel worse, or it may be socioeconomic status or something else that causes that link.”

In general, the investigation finds that social networks are not inherently beneficial or harmful, and their effects depend on the people and what they see.

“We can’t say, ‘Don’t do X, Y’s okay, stay away from Z,’” said Amanda Lenhart, head of research at Common Sense Media. “Unlike TV or movies, it’s impossible to know ahead of time what kids will see on social media. Sometimes it’s about hair dye or dance videos, but sometimes it’s content about white supremacy or eating disorders.”

Adolescents with certain vulnerabilities, such as those with low self-esteempoor body image either social struggles – appear to be at increased risk. One experiment found that exposure to manipulated images directly led to worse body image, particularly for girls more likely to compare themselves to others. Other found that the use of social media to compare themselves to others and seek approval was associated with depressive symptoms, especially for socially struggling teens.

Social networks often have positive and negative effects on the same person. Project Awesome found that its use is associated with higher levels of depression or anxiety and happiness or well-being.

in a common sense report, adolescent girls with symptoms of depression were more likely than girls without symptoms to say that social media made other people’s lives seem better than theirs, and also more likely to say that it improved their social connections. They found mental health resources on social media, as well as harmful content related to suicide. Overall, most of the girls said the effects of social networking features were neutral.

Academic research takes a long time, often years to obtain funding, develop studies, hire staff, recruit participants, analyze data, and submit data for publication. Recruiting minors is even more difficult. By the time a study ends, teens have often moved to a different platform; Much of the research on specific platforms, for example, it’s in Facebook, which most teens no longer use. Tech companies also haven’t shared enough data to help researchers understand the impacts of their products, according to the surgeon general’s report.

The experts said they would like to see research examining specific types of social media content, and things like how social media use in adolescence affects people as adults, what it does to neural pathways, and how to protect young people against the negative effects.

Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge, psychologists who have expressed great concern about the effect of social media on adolescents, have proposed an experiment in which entire middle schools are randomly assigned to avoid social media or not.

The experts agreed that waiting for the investigation was not an option. They also mostly agreed that some level of social media use was beneficial. “There are detrimental developmental implications of not using social media at all, given that this is where social interaction happens,” said Professor Choukas-Bradley.

The researchers said social media rules should depend on individual teen maturity and challenges, and said addressing risks should also be the responsibility of tech companies and lawmakers, not just parents. They agreed on some steps parents could take now:

  • Place boundariesespecially at bedtime.

  • Don’t give a young teenager a smartphone right away. Start with a smartwatch or a phone without internet.

  • Talk to your teens: Ask them to show you what they’re looking at, ask how they feel, and discuss privacy and security.

  • Make a family screen time plan which takes into account which activities increase stress and which provide long-term satisfaction.

  • Model responsible Internet use yourself.

It’s not about monitoring certain apps, said Caleb T. Carr, a professor of communication in the state of Illinois: “Instead, parents should be involved with their children. Like parents before social media, talk about being good humans and citizens, talk about respecting others and self, and talk about how your day went.”

Alicia Parlapiano contributed graphics

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