The University of Manchester

Social media bans don’t address youth mental health problems, say experts

As politicians in the US, France and other countries begin introducing legislation banning the free use of social media by young people, new research has found that these bans do not address youth mental health problems – and could actually cause more harm than good.

Recent months have seen increased discussions of the impact of social media on youth mental health after the publication of a book by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and the new ban on social media use for people under 14 enacted by Florida governor Ron DeSantis. Over 20 new online child safety laws have been passed by 13 states since last year, with many more in the pipeline.

Experts from the #So.Me study – which is being led by The University of Manchester’s Institute of Education – say our understanding of the impact of social media is still in its early stages, and any action from politicians must be based on solid evidence. They say a swathe of recent research has found no concrete confirmation that social media has negative effects on the mental health of most young people, which contrasts with some popular science accounts which are not grounded in fact. 

While social media apps and their push alerts can cause people to use them heavily, bans like the recent Florida example are reminiscent of what experts in this research area call ‘technology panics’ which have occurred throughout recent history. Similar bans were proposed for the radio, the TV, computers, and smartphones, with a 1941 paper bemoaning that over half of the young people studied were ‘severely addicted’ to radio.

The researchers highlight that it is easy to fall into the trap on blaming young people’s mental health difficulties on one single factor, but adolescent development and mental health are highly complex and influenced by many biological, social and broader societal factors.

They say it is unrealistic to conclude that social media is the culprit of young people’s mental health problems, or that a ban would have a substantial impact. A study with thousands of young people actually found that other factors – including lack of family support – may in fact be much more important than social media. 

This means that a social media ban would be ineffective and create a false sense of security, as well as diverting attention from root causes of mental health problems in young people such as childhood adversity, deprivation, discrimination, gender and sexual inequality, and concerns about the ecological future. There are also some groups – LGBTQ+ young people in particular – for whom social media is a vital means to find solace and connection, which a ban would take away.

“Young people feel that adults might have a different opinion about social media because they did not grow up with it, and they ask for trust and agency,” said Dr Margarita Panayiotou, Senior Lecturer in Quantitative Methods at The University of Manchester. “Legislation must take into account the voices and experiences of the people it will affect the most – Florida’s ban fails to do so.” 

“A ban would cause young people to find alternatives to existing social media platforms that may be harder for parents, educators, researchers and legislators to study and monitor,” said Dr Eiko Fried, Associate Professor in Clinical Psychology at Leiden University. “Rather than imposing restrictions, efforts should be directed towards educating young people, their guardians and educators on navigating the digital landscape safely, and on regulations which ensure that social media companies design age-appropriate features and algorithms.”

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