“Some” Are Misrepresenting CDC Report Findings Specific To The Use Of Social Media & Technology By Youth:

February 18, 2023

In January 2023, the US Center For Disease Control and Prevention released their report – “Youth Risk Behaviour Survey”(1) In this report, among their numerous significant findings, one was:

“As we saw in the 10 years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health among students overall continues to worsen, with more than 40% of high school students feeling so sad or hopeless that they could not engage in their regular activities for at least two weeks during the previous year – a possible indication of the experience of depressive symptoms. We also say significant increases in the percentage of youth who seriously considered suicide, made a suicide plan, and attempted suicide”

Another alarming trend uncovered in the CDC report – teenage girls were twice as likely as teenage boys to experience the mental health challenges mentioned above. If you are a parent, caregiver, or educator we would highly recommend that you read the CDC report in full.

After the release of this extremely insightful CDC report, misleading clickbait headlines began to surface in the media, distorting the actual content of the report. As a consequence, some who oppose technology began to use the CDC report as additional evidence to support their claim that social media and technology are detrimental to young people. Many of these headlines utilized the CDC report to make a direct connection between social media and technology, and the decline in youth mental health and depression. Below are two examples of such headlines:

“The Internet is destroying our kids – shocking new CDC teen report the latest Proof” (2)  

“Parents, get your children off the internet” (3)

It’s important to note that the CDC report did not establish any causation or correlation between the decline in youth mental health and social media usage. In fact, the phrase “social media” was only used once on page 49 of the report when it came to the topic of electronic bullying. However, the report did identify other challenges such as unstable housing, lack of school connectedness, and sexual violence that were linked to the decline in youth mental health.

We love reading academic research, which to most parents and caregivers is like watching paint dry. However, we believe that the research mentioned in this posting is important. It helps to balance the misrepresented narrative that some are attributing to the CDC research when it comes to the use of social media and technology by youth. We believe that it is particularly crucial for parents and caregivers to comprehend both the advantages and drawbacks of social media and technology, especially when it comes to the mental health of young people.

Plain and simple, research on the relationship between social media, technology, and mental health is inconsistent. While some research suggests a correlation between social media usage and negative mental health outcomes, there is an equal number of studies that demonstrate minimal to no correlation or causation.

In an October 2021 meta-analysis paper called “Screen media and mental health” (4) the researchers looked at 33 separate studies from 2015-2019 and reported:

“Across studies, evidence suggests that screen media plays little role in mental health concerns. In particular, there was no evidence that screen media contribute to suicidal ideation or other mental health outcomes. This result was also true when investigating smartphones or social media specifically. Overall, as has been the case for previous media such as video games, concerns about screen time and mental health are not based in reliable data.”

In a May 2021 Swedish longitudinal study (5), researchers followed 3,501 14-15-year-old girls for two years and found:

“We found between-person rather than within-person positive associations between social media use and symptoms of mental ill health. This suggests that social media use may serve as an indicator rather than a determinant of risk of mental health problems among adolescents.

In a 2019 Canadian-based longitudinal study (6), that followed 594 adolescents for two years researchers found:

“…social-media use did not predict depressive symptoms over time for males or females. However, greater depressive symptoms predicted more frequent social-media use only among adolescent girls. Thus, while it is often assumed that social-media use may lead to depressive symptoms, our results indicate that this assumption may be unwarranted.”

In this large study (7) released in January 2022, researchers found: 

 “…. in our study integrated technology into their (teens) lives in ways that were not associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, or other poor health outcomes. Thus, the study findings indicate that most adolescents using technology do so in ways that do not lead to increased risk of negative health consequences.”

In a recent 2022 study from Cambridge University in Great Britain (8), researchers found that during COVID:

“Young people’s mental health tended to suffer most during the strictest periods of lockdown, when they were less likely to be able go to school or see friends. But those without access to a computer were the worst hit – their mental health suffered much more than their peers and the change was more dramatic.”

Dr. Amy Orben from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Cognition and Brain Sciences at the University of Cambridge, the study’s senior author, added: 

“Rather than always focusing on the downsides of digital technology on young people’s mental health, we need to recognize that it can have important benefits and may act as a buffer for their mental health during times of acute social isolation, such as the lockdown.

In a further study published in August 2022 called “Disconnection More Problematic for Adolescent Self-Esteem Than Heavy Social Media Use” (9), researchers found:

“we find that a negative relationship between screen time and lower self-esteem is eclipsed by a more substantive, negative relationship to inequalities in material access to the Internet and restrictive mediation of media by parents. Findings show that new media use does not substantively displace time spent socializing with family and friends and in other social activities (e.g., volunteering). Omitting the supportive, indirect relationship between time on social media and self-esteem, through time spent socializing, exaggerates the negative relationship between social media use and adolescent well-being for girls, and for boys, misspecified the direction of the relationship. Adolescents, who experience heavy restrictive mediation of media by parents or have limited Internet access at home, tend to report substantively lower self-esteem than heavy users of any new media.”

In an April 2022 peer-reviewed research paper titled, “Time spent online and children’s self-reported life satisfaction in Norway: The socio-ecological perspective” (10) researchers found:

“We actually find the opposite, that is to say a positive correlation between the self-reported quality of life of adolescents and the amount of time they spend online,”

We think it is important to note that the researchers stated “association” not “causation”- this is an important distinction. The question that should be asked, “Is social media the primary source for mental wellness challenges, or is the use of social media a maladaptive coping strategy for underlying conditions such as depression or stress that can lead to problematic behaviour?”   We believe that the most current research is showing the latter. 

In this 2022 study (11), the researchers found:

“our study provides robust evidence that, at a time of elevated digital technology use and psychological distress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, fluctuations in digital technology use did not meaningfully contribute to fluctuations in psychological distress among young adults.” 

In fact, some psychologists suggest that teenagers turn to social media in order to cope with negative emotions. (12) Other researchers have found that when teenagers’ depression gets worse, it predicts the increased use of social media as a maladaptive coping mechanism (13)

In a 2021 research study by Common Sense Media, Hopelab, and the California Health Care Foundation called “Coping With Covid-19: How Young People Use Digital Media To Manage Their Mental Health” (14)they found the following:

  • 43% of teens stated using social media made them feel better when depressed, stressed, or anxious
  • 40% stated that it made no difference in their mental health, and
  • 17% stated social media made them feel worse

Of interest, the 17% identified in the above-noted research was very congruent with the study done in 2018 called “Social Media Use and Adolescent Mental Health: Findings From the UK Millennium Cohort Study” (15) that we mentioned earlier, which found a 15% increase in depressive symptoms amongst girls who use social media for an extended period of time.

Is It Possible That Age Can Have Developmental Sensitivity To Social Media Use & Life Satisfaction?

There is no doubt that early adolescence is a time of significant hormonal, neural, cognitive, and social shifts that might make social-media environments particularly alluring but also especially impactful on mental health. Studies show that adolescents, particularly those in early to mid-adolescence, place increased importance on being able to interact with their peers and on what their peers may think of them and therefore have a negative effect on “some”.

In a 2015 study, researchers found that children up to the age of 8yrs, only have a “limited or no perception of online risks: when it comes to the use of technology and the internet (16) This research strongly supports why youth this age should have no unsupervised access to technology, the internet, and social media.

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. (17) 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.

After reading this study, we reached out to Dr. Andrew Przybylski via Twitter (one of the researchers in the study) and asked them:

“Was the type of social media use considered? In other words, did the research provide insight into what type of social media led to the decrease in life satisfaction in these age groups?”

Dr. Andrew Przybylski’s reply:

“Hi Darren, no, and the data were collected over a wide range of years so it’s also possible that the share of any given platform at any given age varied over the time span of data collection.” 

We believe our question was important because it has been our anecdotal experience, having presented to over 560,000 teens, that youth under the age of 15 are primarily using social media as consumers as a way to socially interact with peers and others their age, whereas those over the age of 15 are using social media more as creators and producers.

In an article specific to this study (18) 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.” 

Dr. Przybylski, another researcher in the study stated:

This doesn’t constitute advice to parents that their children should abstain from social media,” says Przybylski. “It’s clear from the data that abstinence isn’t necessarily great, either.”

In a January 2022 study (19) “Does objectively-measured social media or smartphone use predict depression, anxiety, or social isolation among young adults?” researchers found two important takeaways:

#1 – “We found limited evidence that three distinct yet commonly-investigated aspects of digital technology use—smartphone use duration (“screen time”) and frequency (i.e., “pickups”), and social media use duration—exhibited meaningful prospective associations with three commonly-investigated aspects of psychological distress—depression, anxiety, and social isolation. By meaningful we are not strictly referring to statistical significance but also practical significance.”

#2 – “Our study provides robust evidence that, at a time of elevated digital technology use and psychological distress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, fluctuations in digital technology use did not meaningfully contribute to fluctuations in psychological distress among young adults.”

Another April 2022 study from Norway (20) surrounding teens and screen time found:

“Despite public discourses highlighting the negative consequences of time spent online (TSO) for children’s well-being, Norwegian children (aged 9–16 years) use the Internet more than other European children and score higher on self-reported life satisfaction (SRLS). To explore the possibility that TSO might contribute to high life satisfaction or other underlying explanatory factors, we investigate the relationship between TSO and SRLS in Norway while also accounting for how individual, family, school, and broader social circumstances influence this relationship. Countering prevailing discourses, we find a positive relationship between TSO and SRLS, which remains positive and significant even after a wider range of variables are accounted for. By explaining the circumstances under which TSO has a positive effect on SRLS, this article provides evidence of the complex role that digital technology plays in the lives of children. It also provides a critique of the often-simplistic arguments found in public discourses around children’s digital media use.”

As Niamh Ní Bhroin, one of the researchers, stated, “We actually find the opposite, that is to say, a positive correlation between the self-reported quality of life of adolescents and the amount of time they spend online,”  

In another 2022 study that supports the above Norway study (21), the researchers found that the relationship between screen time and lower self-esteem is not as significant as the relationship between unequal access to the Internet and strict parental control over media usage. The study also indicated that social media usage does not replace the time spent with family and friends or participating in social activities like volunteering. Ignoring the indirect relationship between social media use and self-esteem, through increased social interaction, overstates the negative impact of social media on the well-being of girls and misinterprets the relationship for boys. Adolescents who have limited access to the Internet at home or face strict control from their parents tend to have lower self-esteem compared to heavy users of social media. Here’s a quote from the study:

“The tenuous claim that social media use or time spent on screens of various types is problematic for the psychological well-being of most adolescents is perpetuated through low-quality studies that fail adequately to explore the role of third variables and do not report the magnitude of effects. Perpetuating these missteps may do real harm to the very people reported to be at greatest risk. It is fantasy to wish new media away, because they are firmly baked into adolescents’ everyday lives. Helping adolescents manage their digital world rather than disconnecting them from it prepares them better for the future. Instructive mediation may be effective in reducing risk and supporting well-being. This approach helps adolescents recognize the risks of specific online activities, such as sexting, cyber-bullying, and social comparison, but it can also recognize the ever-present and often supportive role of new media in the lives of today’s youth. To maintain the myth that there is commonly substantive injury related to average or even heavy amounts of time spent online serves only to embolden a cycle of media reporting that stimulates a moral panic. This panic amplifies parental concerns about new media and gives voice to pundits, who harken for “the good old days” that were never so good anyway . It distracts from long-established cleavages that are clearly related to adolescent well-being, notably, as we have again found here, those related to gender and academic performance. Rhetoric claiming widespread harm from new media contributes to a “techlash” that may lead to bans and regulation of technologies that contribute to benefits in other domains, such as human and social capital . This does not imply that social media platforms are benign, but there is currently no coherent, consistent research supporting their widespread, damaging effects to adolescents.”

In a 2023 longitudinal study, a group of Norwegian children, aged 10, 12, 14, and 16 (total of 810 children), were asked questions about their social media usage. They underwent psychiatric interviews to assess symptoms of depression, social anxiety, and generalized anxiety. The collected data was analyzed using a statistical method called Random Intercept Cross-lagged Panel Modeling. The study found that the frequency of posting, liking, and commenting on social media had NO connection to future symptoms of depression and anxiety. This conclusion remains valid even when using highly reliable measures of depression and anxiety.

Are there emotional, psychological, physical, and social challenges associated with online problematic behavior?   Some of the newest research is showing us that digital affordance, through the use of algorithms used by some social media platforms, can undermine mental wellness thus increasing exposure to online harmful content for some youth who are already at risk.   However, don’t believe some of the hype associated with social media, and its negative effects on mental wellness, as being “the” cause of this decline that is being pushed by some. 

As Dr. Sonia Livingstone stated (22),

“The relationship between digital life and mental health is best characterized by a complex mix of positive and negative influences varying over time both within and between individuals – conditioned and moderated by personal characteristics and cultural, historical, and socio-economic factors.”

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(23)

An interesting observation that supports the fact that social media and cell phones are not likely the main cause for the increase in adolescent mental health in North America.

Again, we do believe that social media and technology can play both a positive and negative role in youth mental wellness in today’s onlife world. However, youth mental health is more nuanced and multifactorial than just pointing to social media and cell phones as the primary culprit for the declines mentioned in the CDC report. Experts in the mental health field have identified various multifactorial challenges that can frequently contribute to depression or suicidal ideations among youth outside of technology. 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
  • 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

As Dr. Tyler Black (Medical Director of the CAPE Unit at BC Children’s Hospital and BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services, Suicidologist, and specialist in Paediatric Emergency Psychiatry) stated in a tweet specific to youth suicide and suicidal ideations:

“2017 was lower than 2015, and 2019 is lower than 1999. The idea that media, social media, technology, or whatever else luddites hate is strongly correlated with increasing suicidal thinking in kids is ahistorical and dishonest.”


Our takeaway – the scientific research regarding the effects of cellphones, social media, and other online activities on adolescent mental health is inconsistent and often contradictory. Although certain studies may indicate a negative relationship between social media usage and well-being, other studies, as highlighted in this post, have shown no such correlation and have even demonstrated a positive impact. A reality that remains unchanged specific to social media, technology, and its effects on youth mental health – there is a range of opinions among researchers regarding the importance of these favorable or unfavorable outcomes (24)

We continue to believe, based on “all” of the current research to date, that a well-balanced, and age-appropriate approach to technology that encourages youth agency, alongside parental modeling, communication, participation, and the monitoring of their child’s technology and online activity, offers more benefits than drawbacks for the vast majority of our youth online.

Digital Food For Thought

The White Hatter

























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