Why scientists don’t actually know if social media is bad for you
It's often said that social media is bad for our mental health – but does the evidence really support that?
We’ve had waves of panic around technology for decades, whether it be comic books or video games. Now it happens to be social media. And the fact of the matter is that parents and teachers, who are trying to raise their kids in the face of these panics, are being poorly served by the government when it comes to getting meaningful advice.
It’s not that social media is good or bad for people. It’s that the science of social media and mental health is broken. We need to do research, but we shouldn’t be approaching it from the perspective that the world is ending. We need to be curious and open to the possibility of its effects, positive and negative.
For instance, in recent years, we’ve learnt, pretty conclusively, that violent video games don’t cause real-world aggression. There’s nearly a perfect negative correlation between youth crime and the sale of violent video games globally. And when we revisit some of the studies from the early 2000s that were heralded as reasons for regulation, none of their findings are replicated.
What makes things trickier when it comes to social media is, first, that the social media companies control the data, so it’s much harder to study, and second, that it’s the focus of the current panic. We know face-to-face bullying is much worse for young people in this country than cyber bullying is. But cyber bullying sucks all the air out of the room when you talk about victimisation in adolescence.
Put it this way, if I wanted to study bullying in 1980, I could go to a school, a playground, the local bowling alley, and I could basically capture a snapshot in the life of an adolescent. If I want to study bullying in 2021, I couldn’t get a full picture of exactly what’s happening because the social media companies hold all the data. Bullying online might not be any worse than it happening face-to face, but if it’s happening behind closed doors I can’t study or understand it.
But that doesn’t stop people claiming that cyberbullying causes suicides, even though there’s no evidence to prove it. You look at reasons why young people take their lives and it’s test scores or exams, it’s someone close to them taking their own life or it’s drug- and alcohol-related. Those are the three main attributable causes. There’s no evidence that social media is part of any of them.
Now, I can either adopt false confidence and tell you social media might be a problem (and possibly drop the word ‘might’ for greater impact – and there’s an entire cottage industry that tries to do that) or I can be honest with you and say I don’t know because scientists like us can’t see over the walls of the social media companies.
The danger for policymakers or parents is that if you pretend that social media is a problem, without having evidence, and you take steps to regulate it, the intervention could end up being really bad for young people. You might be taking away a lifeline for vulnerable kids or deprive them of their human right to play, which is morally reprehensible at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic. So that’s why I’m not going to tell you that I know social media is bad.
It’s perfectly reasonable for parents and teachers to be concerned about social media, but it’s out there, it’s unavoidable and young people are going to encounter it sooner or later. So what would you rather do: keep them in the dark and leave them ill-equipped to deal with it or let them learn about social media with your help and support?
It’s a little like learning to ride a bike. Bikes can be huge fun to ride, but you can also hurt yourself on them, which is why you don’t just give your kid a bike and a helmet and wish them good luck. You help them learn to ride.
Similarly, with social media you need to keep the lines of communication open so you’re not asking your 14-year-old daughter to choose between telling you someone scary is messaging her or losing her phone. You need to treat it like anything else that can hurt you, but can also connect you.
Whether you’re a grown up or a kid, ask yourself why you’re using social media. Is it because you want to, or because you feel you have to? It doesn’t necessarily matter how much time you spend ‘doomscrolling’ on Twitter or dancing on TikTok, but if you’re doing it because you feel you have to and it’s making you unhappy, you may want to try and stop.
Interviewed by Rob Banino
- This article first appeared in issue 361 of BBC Science Focus Magazine – find out how to subscribe here
More on how to make the internet great again:
- How a “new kind of physics” could track down extremists online
- Interview: Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee thinks his creation is out of control. Here's his plan to save it
- Why the internet can survive without ads
- Social networks are built to turn us against each other. Can we fix them?
- The simple reasons online disinformation may never be fixed
- Breaking up the power: Does the internet’s future have to depend on a handful of megacorps?
- Meet the app developer creating a simple tool that could slay all online trolls
Andrew is an experimental psychologist at the Oxford Internet Institute. He studies how people interact with virtual environments.