SDSU psychology professor Jean Twenge says not all screen time is equal.
In his State of the Union address on March 1, 2022, President Joe Biden called for tougher restrictions on tech companies to protect children from social media harm and protect their privacy.
Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University Jean Twengé studies the effects of social media on the well-being of adolescents and young adults who are part of a generation that has never known a world without smartphones. Twenge is the author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.
press center Susanne Clara Barde asked Twenge how social media affects young people and what parents can do about it.
You’ve reported in previous research that social media use among teens is more harmful than screen time, what are some of your key findings?
Twengé: Among teens, heavy users of social media (more than five hours a day) are twice as likely to be depressed as non-users. Facebook’s own research found that Instagram use leads to body image issues for many teenage girls. Screen time in general (TV, games, texting) is also linked to depression, but not as strongly. Depression rates begin to rise after one hour of social media use per day, but the curve is generally lower for other types of screen time, with higher depression rates only appearing after three or four hours of use per day. So two hours a day of social media use seems to be different from two hours a day of watching TV, for example.
What kind of reforms is Biden asking for and are tech companies likely to act on?
Twengé: During his State of the Union address, President Biden said social media companies were running a “national experiment…on our children for profit.” and leaked internal research showing the impact of social media on teens and young adults. In the fall of 2021, a bipartisan coalition of senators called for social media reforms, particularly around minors. For example, users must be 13 to use social media platforms under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act 1998, but age is not verified by the platforms – so they are regularly used by children from the age of six.
Thirteen is also probably too young to handle social media pressures; some have called for the minimum age to be raised to 16 or 18. Alternatively, platforms could consider a different social media experience for young teens that would allow communication with friends but without access to influencers and other content that can lead to body image issues. or unfavorable comparisons. There’s another reason we need to act: Teen depression rates doubled between 2011 and 2019, just as social media and smartphones became popular. It is of course difficult to prove that technology is behind the boom, but what caused such a big change in the lives of teenagers during this period?
Are social networks addictive for children? If so, what can tech companies do to make it less so?
Twengé: Social media platforms use algorithms to keep users coming back as often as possible for as long as possible. You could say they are designed to be addictive. Tech companies have no incentive to change that; it’s essential to their business model. This is why reforms will probably be necessary.
Do all forms of screen time have the same effect on children?
Twengé: It seems clear that social media, especially for girls, is more strongly associated with mental health issues than screen time in general. Watching TV and streaming services, for example, is less likely to cause the problems social media is known for, including seeing what your friends are up to without you, feeling pressured to post sexy photos, worrying likes and followers and excessively comparing yourself to others. Gambling is often a social activity, which might explain why it’s not as strongly associated with depression as social media. General internet use is also linked to depression at about the same rate as social media. this may be because some of this use is on social media sites, or because teens watch other content online that has negative mental health consequences.
While there are calls for limits on social media nationally, what would you recommend in terms of steps parents can take now if they are concerned about the impact of social media on their child?
Second, delay children’s access to social media accounts for as long as possible. When they get an account, limit the time they can spend on it to an hour or less per day (this can be done using parental controls on most smartphones). This limit can be relaxed somewhat for older teens, but only if they handle social media pressures well – and it can be hard to tell. My #1 rule, however, is: no phones in the bedroom at night. It’s just too tempting for teens (and adults!) to use the phone in bed and compromise their sleep.