Banning Social Media vs Teaching Digital Literacy when It Comes to Youth Mental Health.

May 20, 2023

With clickbait headlines such as, “Social Media Is Causing A Mental Health Crisis” it is no wonder that with the increase in adolescent anxiety and depression over the past decade, there is a desire to hold someone or something accountable – thus why today, social media and technology can become the easy target of parents, special interest groups, and politicians. 

Now, do these companies and their platforms have a part to play with “some” youth when it comes to their mental wellness? – Absolutely! However, is social media the main culprit? Is there something else that is playing a bigger role that we just don’t want to acknowledge because of their social complexities, and the financial resources needed to mediate youth mental health concerns? After all, taking a banning approach is just easier, often cheaper to accomplish, and politically advantageous for some.

Youth mental health is more nuanced and multifactorial than just pointing to social media and cell phones as the primary culprit for the declines in youth mental health. Experts in the mental health field have identified various multifactorial challenges that can frequently contribute to the increased mental health concerns among youth. Some of these challenges can include:

  • Instability at school
  • Academic pressure
  • Increase in school shootings and mass violence since 2007
  • Increased family conflict, family separation, and divorce rates
  • Domestic abuse
  • Parent/caregiver Job Loss
  • Increases in parental distress
  • Sexualized violence
  • sexuality/orientation
  • increased rates of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny
  • Increased rates of child abuse
  • relationship navigation challenges
  • Housing crisis
  • Food insecurity for lower-income families
  • Concerns about climate change
  • The current climate of political polarization
  • Increased levels of child poverty in North America
  • Lack of prevention and early intervention treatment and counseling for youth mental health
  • Inflation and the cost of living in the home
  • Student debt
  • Substance abuse
  • The increased pace of change given the global economy
  • Physical health problems/disabilities
  • Teens who have lost one or more caregivers, close family members, and close friends during COVID

How can the banning of technology or social media solve all these issues? – the answer, it can’t. 

Don’t get us wrong, there are challenges faced by “some” young people online where they use technology as a maladaptive coping strategy that can lead them towards a mental health crisis. However, their challenges do not necessarily imply that removing social media will solve the mental health concerns for “all” youth. 

Our belief based upon the research – when we encounter a teenager expressing mental health challenges related to social media, it may be wiser to address and mitigate their specific underlying issues, rather than resorting to a complete ban of social media and technology believing that it will help all youth.

As professor and Psychologist Pete Etchella stated, 

“Instead of asking does social media and technology cause mental health issues, perhaps a better question might be: why do some people prosper online while others get into real difficulty”

A 2022 study headed by Dr. Amy Orben at Oxford University showed initial, non-causal, but suggestive evidence of developmental sensitivity to social media use by some youth. (1) In this study, the researchers found:

  • Some Girls may experience a negative link at 11-13, boys when they are 14-15,
  • Increased social media use might also affect life satisfaction at aged 19, but
  • Adolescents with lower life satisfaction consistently use social media more.

The study actually found what is commonly known in psychology as the “Goldilocks Effect” – some people who use social media a lot tend to be unhappier, some people who never use it or use it very little also tend to be unhappier, and those who take a balanced and moderate approach tend to be the happiest.

In an article specific to this study (2) Dr. Orben stated:

“I wouldn’t say that there is a specific age group we should all be worried about. We should all be reflecting on our social media use and encouraging those conversations but we need to understand what is driving these changes across age groups and between genders. There are very large individual differences, so there may be certain teenagers that benefit from their use of social media whilst at the same time, someone else is harmed.” 

Another interesting observation made by Dr. Craig Sewall (Clinical Data Scientist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine):

“If social media is a “clear” cause of adolescent mental illness, then how do you explain the fact that mental health has *improved* over the past 20 years among South Korean youth? A place where Social Media use is just as (or even more) ubiquitous than the US” (3)

An interesting quote from Dr. Sewall that supports the fact that social media and cell phones are not likely the main cause for the increase in adolescent mental health concerns in North America as well.

In a great article that appeared online (4), Dr. Sarah Coyne speaks to banning legislation, and the negative effects that such legislation will have on vulnerable youth, such as LGBTQ+ and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) teens. Research indicates that social media can serve as a vital source of belonging and support for these youth, providing a safe space for interaction (5). Dr. Coyne believes that removing this support may inadvertently harm this already at-risk group of youth, leading to unforeseen negative consequences – an opinion that we agree with.

Additionally, Dr. Coyne talks about how social media can be a positive coping mechanism for other young people, allowing them to find a needed break from personal struggles and seek support from their unique online communities. For these youth, social media can have a positive therapeutic impact. However, taking a banning approach to technology and social media can also have unforeseen mental health consequences for this cohort of youth as well – again an opinion that we agree with.

Dr. Coyne’s idea – rather than solely focusing on laws that ban certain social media platforms, or policies that prohibit children from a balanced and appropriate use of technology, how about in today’s onlife world we consider the potential benefits of investing in digital literacy education instead – again an opinion that we agree with

We strongly believe in the research that highlights the importance of teaching comprehensive digital literacy to children from an early age. This is something that parents can take a key role in – something we speak to in our article “Transformational Approach to Parenting in Today’s Onlife World” (6) 

By equipping youth with digital literacy skills, not only can we teach them how to navigate social media and technology, but also how to critically analyze and interpret what they are reading, hearing, or seeing online. 

Digital literacy skills can often alleviate the concerns that parents, caregivers, and even teens have regarding social media and technology. This approach enables youth to cultivate critical thinking skills and resiliency, essential qualities needed in today’s technology-driven world. Unlike a ban, fostering these attributes acknowledges the ubiquity of technology in today’s onlife world and its impact on our kiddo’s lives.

Digital literacy education can teach youth how to harness social media in ways that can promote a positive mental health state of mind, and provide youth with the necessary tools and knowledge to thrive in today’s onlife world, but this takes dedication, time, effort, and resources. 

Rather than giving in to fear, moral panic, and pushing for the banning of social media or technology, let’s instead prioritize and advocate the need for digital literacy education with our youth, but at the same time hold social media vendors more accountable via “regulating” legislation, rather than “banning” legislation. A great model for this approach, the Australian eSafety Commissioner Office(7)

As Dr. Sarah Coyne stated 

“Banning or severely limiting social media among adolescents is not the way forward and will have serious unintended consequences. It would be like letting a 16-year-old child drive without first having them take driver’s education. Instead of taking the keys away and randomly giving them back someday, can we please teach our kids to drive in this digital environment? It might just save a life.”

Digital Food For Thought

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