Teenagers carry a mental health risk in their pockets

Naomi Ishisaka of The Seattle Times

Every generation worries about what a particular cultural shift is doing to the minds of our youth.

When I Was a Kid in the mid-’80s, Tipper Gore and the Parents’ Music Resource Center would come after rock and rap for what they considered obscene and explicit lyrics, which led to the first “Parental Advisory” tag on the 2 Live Crew album.

Decades later, the focus is now on social media and its effects on the mental health of young people.

Given the frequent overshoot and cyclical nature of these moral panics, it would be easy to turn your attention to today’s concerns about social media.

But unlike the obscene or racy words that were supposed to blight young minds when I was a kid, today’s fears about social media have a stronger foundation in reality.

Seattle Public Schools jumped deeper into this debate a few weeks ago when the district sued social media giants Facebook, TikTok, Instagram and others, arguing that the companies were contributing to a youth mental health crisis. The Kent School District followed suit soon after.

In an interview last week, San Diego State University psychology professor Gene Twenge and author of “iGen,” which focused on Generation Z and the impact of social media on young people, said there are plenty of reasons to be concerned.

She said beginning in the early 2010s, we started to see some worrying trends in the mental health of teenage girls in particular. Hospital admissions for self-harm in girls ages 10 to 14 tripled over the next decade and suicide rates doubled among that age group. Twenge’s research showed that major depressive episodes among 12- to 17-year-old girls increased by 52%, too. There was no associated increase in the other age groups.

Correlation is not causation, but Twenge said of the rise of social media, “It’s hard to think of any other events or events that occurred in the early 2010s, and have continued the same trend for more than a decade.”

Twenge said academic research has found links between Instagram use, negative social comparison, disordered eating, and body image problems, especially for teenage girls. It also confirmed parent company Facebook research, which was leaked by the whistleblower.

In addition to mental health, there are also physical (and devastating) consequences to TikTok challenges.

The scariest and most dangerous thing she talked about was the “Blackout Challenge,” which involved participants holding their breath long enough to pass out. This challenge unsurprisingly resulted in 20 infant deaths over an 18-month period, according to The Daily Beast in November. Fifteen of the children were 12 or younger, which is below the minimum age of 13 required to be used on the app. In 2020, The New York Times reported that a third of TikTok users are 14 or younger.

Twenge isn’t suggesting that we should ban cell phones, but there are some commonsense solutions for disrupting the unfettered power of social media on our children’s psyches. Some ideas include imposing a minimum age of 13; restricting teens’ access to social media in the middle of the night; and limiting the amount of social media teens consume on a daily basis.

For marginalized communities who find support and common cause on platforms like Instagram, Twenge said there are ways to preserve what’s healthy, while minimizing what’s not.

However, pockets of social media opposing toxic messages are still vastly outnumbered. Case in point, even after Instagram and Facebook tried to restrict access to certain weight loss content, it was still widely available. An Instagram search last week found that the hashtags #weightloss and #diet were used together 160 million times, but the hashtags #bodypositivity and #bodypositive a total of 29 million.

Naomi Ishisaka is a columnist for The Seattle Times.

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