Consider two facts:
- Worldwide, smartphones and easier social media access exploded starting in 2010. Consider U.S. smartphone-use (and its projected future):
So, is there a causal connection? If so, is it big enough to matter?
Should parents give (or deny) their middle schoolers smartphones with Instagram or Snapchat accounts? And does amount of daily screen time matter?
In quest of answers, my esteemed social psychologist colleague Jonathan Haidt is assembling the available evidence using (and illustrating) three psychological methods. His tentative conclusions:
- Correlational studies ask: Is social media use associated with teen mental health? Study outcomes vary, but overall, there is at least a small correlation between adolescents’ social media hours and their risk of depression, anxiety, and self-harm. The screen time–disorder association is stronger for social media use than for TV and gaming time, and the link is greater for females who are heavy social media users.
- Longitudinal studies ask: Does today’s social media use predict future mental health? In six of eight studies, the answer is yes.
- Experiments ask: Do volunteers randomly assigned to restricted social media use fare better than those not assigned on outcomes such as loneliness and depression? On balance, yes, says Haidt, but the few such studies have produced mixed results.
In a Time essay, researcher Jean Twenge (my Social Psychology co-author) offers kindred advice for parents concerned about their children’s social media use:
- “No phone or tablets in the bedroom at night.”
- “No using devices within an hour of bedtime.”
- “Limit device time to less than two hours of leisure time a day.”
Haidt also provides us a much-needed model of intellectual humility. In his continuing search for answers, he posts his tentative conclusions and accumulating evidence online, and he welcomes other researchers’ evidence and criticism. He writes,
I am not unbiased. I came to the conclusion that there is a link, and I said so in my book (The Coddling of the American Mind, with Greg Lukianoff). . . . Like all people, I suffer from confirmation bias. [Thus] I need help from critics to improve my thinking and get closer to the truth. If you are a researcher and would like to notify me about other studies, or add comments or counterpoints to this document, please request edit access to the Google Doc, or contact me directly.
In our college and AP psychology texts, Nathan DeWall and I commend “a scientific attitude that combines curiosity, skepticism, and humility.” We note that, when combined with the scientific method, the result is a self-correcting road toward truth. By embracing this spirit, Haidt exemplifies psychological science at its best—exploring an important question by all available methods . . . drawing initial conclusions . . . yet holding them tentatively, while welcoming skeptical scrutiny and further evidence. As he mused (when I shared a draft of this essay), “It is amazing how much I have learned, and refined my views, just by asking people to make me smarter.”
How true for us all. The pack is greater than the wolf.