What role does social media use play in youth mental health crises? Researchers are trying to find out.

Youth mental health is in crisis.

In December 2021, US Surgeon General A Advice on youth mental health. A few months later, the chief scientific officer of the American Psychological Association They testified. He told a Senate committee that America’s youth mental health system was fundamentally flawed. Not only are the symptoms of mood disorders such as depression increasing in young people and children, but the manifestations of those diseases, e.g Emergency room visits And SuicideThey also have.

Much attention has been paid to the role social media may play in that crisis. But researchers studying the connection say the field is still in its infancy, and new methods and funding are needed to understand it and push for a healthier environment for kids online.

“We’re really in the early stages of understanding how young children and teenagers are affected by new digital media, including social media,” said Michael Robb, senior director of research at Common Sense Media. On the role of media in children’s lives. “The research we’ve done is not enough to help us understand the ways in which the Internet and social media affect the well-being of young people.”

some Studies They showed a link between the mental health and well-being of adolescents and the amount of time they spend on social media. one A meta-analysis In 12 different studies, depression was associated with time spent on social media, albeit weakly. But there is no consensus on the point because other studies do not show their relationship. Therefore, it is not yet known whether social media use has a negative impact on adolescent mental health, or if social media engagement is a behavior that children and adolescents with mental health problems may engage in.

“If we change children’s use of social media, will that change their mental health? That’s the big question, and I’d say we don’t really know at this point,” said Kira Riehm, a postdoctoral fellow in psychiatric epidemiology at Columbia University. Focusing on digital media and mental health. “I’m seeing researchers write that there are reasons to believe that people with mental health problems may go to social media and use it more.”

Social media use can involve a variety of behaviors, from messaging friends to watching videos to mindless scrolling. Understanding which behaviors are likely to be problematic — and for individuals — can help policymakers and technology companies manage and design online spaces for young people.

“If we just talk about social media, we’re conflating all kinds of experiences into one homogenous bait — and it’s losing any kind of meaning,” says David Bickham, research scientist for digital wellness at Boston Children’s Hospital. A laboratory that studies children and media. “Is going on TikTok and watching videos the same as sending a friend a direct message to ask for help with something? Those are very different experiences.

Only certain subgroups of youth may be vulnerable or exposed to negative health effects of social media.

The latest Research Depressed Adolescents, co-authored by Bickham, sought to provide a clearer understanding of the relationship between social media use and mental health. The researchers looked at the differences between active forms of social media use, such as messaging, chatting or posting, and scrolling. They also looked at unique individual factors, including age, gender, race, and ethnicity. Finally, they found that content, context, and individual factors can influence one’s affective or extrinsic social media use after engaging in it.

There are many individual differences between children. “It’s really exciting to treat kids as a big, unified group,” says Rob. But really, that’s a very clear way to look at how social media affects kids.

There is emerging evidence that social media may have some positive effects. It can help young people. Develop strong relationships with friends Or help them find resources when they need them. In 2021 Research Of the parents of researchers in the Digital Wellness Lab, most participants said their child’s media use was positive or helpful.

Further research will allow policymakers to better regulate platforms and technology companies to better tailor social media experiences to children and reduce triggers and enhance the positive experiences social media can create. Nowadays, most of the online sites that children and teenagers use are not designed with them in mind. Intervention and support can help the most vulnerable users.

Maya Hernandez, a doctoral candidate in social ecology at the University of California, Irvine, said: “Parents and children themselves recognize that there are some benefits, especially with COVID, in terms of social cohesion, social capital and access to resources.

But realizing those benefits will take time and new methods. So far, most research has been cross-sectional, meaning it only looks at two things at once. This is partly because it is the easiest type of study. But many scientists are beginning to design longitudinal studies, or studies that use ecological real-time assessment—a tool that allows research participants to understand what they’re doing and how they’re feeling in real time.

The hope is that these new approaches will provide more reliable and complex data. But researchers say their job is more challenging because social media platforms are changing so quickly. And the inner workings of platforms and algorithms are often unclear. Focusing more on general types of apps or activities can help improve that, but it can’t change the fact that kids grow up fast and have little chance of interfering with their social media habits.

More funding for research can help things go faster. The council recently one Mathematics It provides funding at the National Institutes of Health to study the effects of mass media on children and adolescents. But whether it will become law is still up in the air.

“It’s hard to imagine a world without technology,” says Emily Weinstein, director of research at Harvard University’s Project Zero Center.

Weinstein added that understanding the experiences of young people is key to creating safe online spaces.

“What do we need to understand about their experiences, and what do we need to change about them to support the ultimate goal of happy, healthy children in a world of unprecedented technology?” Weinstein asks. “I see research as an important bridge to get us there.”

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