As a professor of psychology, Doctor has published nearly 500 articles and essays on teen development.
It’s no secret that Facebook has dominated the latest news cycle, but critics have overlooked an inconvenient fact: Instagram, a Facebook app, has not been shown to harm teenage girls’ psychological well-being, whether it’s done by Facebook or anyone else.
A Wall Street Journal report last month stated that Facebook’s “own in-depth research indicates a significant mental health issue among teens that Facebook tries to hide in public.” When Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee who leaked internal company documents to The Wall Street Journal, revealed her identity on “60 Minutes” and testified before a Senate subcommittee, that story became even bigger.
Ms. Umair claimed that Facebook had purposefully hidden research showing teenagers felt worse about themselves after using its products. It is easy to assume that this damning research is accurate. However, that assumption is unfounded. According to the Facebook documents, now available online, the results of that research are inconclusive.
According to the documents, Facebook conducted surveys and focus groups in which people were asked how Instagram had affected them. Adolescent girls reported that Instagram made them feel worse about themselves three out of ten times.
This correlation between Instagram use and self-reported psychological distress is concerning on the surface. This finding should be used as a starting point for further research, not as a conclusion. According to psychological research, we often don’t understand ourselves as well as we think we do. Human behavior studies seek to go beyond individuals’ explanations of why they feel what they feel or behave the way they do.
In addition to these shortcomings, the research had other weaknesses. Neither of the Facebook studies described in the documents included a comparison group of people who didn’t use Instagram, which would have been crucial to drawing any inferences about Instagram’s effects. According to Facebook, its research “did not measure whether Instagram makes things worse, but how people who reported that they were already experiencing these issues felt Instagram impacted their experience.”.
This caveat may seem self-serving to some. Regardless, it is true.
Psychiatrists agree that depression and related mental health problems have increased among young people in recent years, a trend that requires immediate attention. In correlational research that links experience to mental health, disentangling cause and effect is extremely difficult.
Without a controlled experiment in which people are randomly assigned to have or not have an experience, we are left with several uncertainties: We cannot be sure if the experience harmed the person’s mental state (In this case, Instagram caused teenagers to become depressed); or if the person’s poor mental state contributed to the experience (for example, depressed teenagers are more likely than others to use Instagram); or if another, unmeasured variable (such as family conflict) contributed both to the experience and the mental state, giving the impression that they were directly related.
All of these interpretations are reasonable, but the problem is that they are all reasonable. To sort out these competing accounts, we need much better research than that described in the Facebook documents. The research would be able to control for pre-existing differences between individuals who use and do not use the platform, monitor their mental health over time, and measure mental health with standardized measures of symptoms before and after the study period. In an ideal world, such research would also compare the effects of social media platforms with those of other media that could negatively affect adolescents’ wellbeing.
There is growing scientific evidence linking social media use to adolescent mental health. Although few studies have the characteristics listed above, it is still difficult to draw any firm conclusions from them. Almost all of the studies that have found a negative correlation between social media use and adolescent mental health have found extremely small effects – so small as to be trivial and dwarfed by other factors.
Furthermore, in the Facebook surveys, twice as many respondents reported Instagram alleviated suicidal thoughts as said it worsened them; three times as many said it made them feel less anxious as said it made them feel more so; and nearly five times as many reported Instagram made them feel less sad than it made them sadder.
It is equally important to be skeptical of correlational studies that link social media usage to positive well-being as we are of studies that reach the opposite conclusion. Despite the widespread condemnation of social media, it’s important to remember that it may benefit more adolescents than harm them. (Imagine how teenagers might have fared without the ability to communicate with their friends online during the pandemic.)
You might ask, what is the harm in assuming without evidence that Instagram use contributes to depression among adolescents? Doesn’t it seem plausible enough at face value? Isn’t it possible to prevent at least some teenagers from feeling bad about themselves if Instagram and other social media platforms were more regulated?
There are dangers associated with this way of thinking. As we rush to blame Facebook for the rise in adolescent depression, we may be contributing to the very problem we hope to solve. The parents who believe that they can treat a teenager’s depression by restricting her Instagram usage may end up ignoring the real causes. Facebook can become a convenient way to avoid other, more uncomfortable but equally plausible explanations, such as familial dysfunction, substance abuse, and school-related stress.
Correlation does not imply causation, yet we readily ignore this principle when looking for an account that we hope is true. As Facebook is regularly vilified (sometimes deservedly), wanting to believe that its practices have negatively impacted teenagers’ mental health is understandable. It doesn’t happen just because you want it.