America’s Teenage Social Media Problem

“You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.” So reads the tagline for David Fincher’s The Social Network, the award-winning film adaptation of Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires, itself a chronicle of the founding of the social media giant Facebook. The Social Network hit theaters in 2010, when Facebook had, by its own count, 608 million active users.

A lot has since changed. Facebook (the company) is now Meta, and its various products (Facebook and Instagram, primarily) have over 2.96 billion estimated users daily. While that number is beyond comprehension, the scandals and criticism that have dogged Meta since it ascended to ubiquitous international status are almost as difficult to grasp. As the platform has grown from the paltry sum of 500 million “friends’”, Meta’s opponents are far greater in number and power than Fincher’s tongue-in-cheek “few enemies”.

Facebook has been embroiled in constant turmoil for years, with scandals ranging from prototypical multinational corporate chicanery to truly unprecedented and dangerous violations of privacy. Meta has faced accusations of tax evasion dating back to 2012, has confronted criticism over its real-name use policy for years, and was revealed to have a ‘blacklist’ of organizations and individuals that disproportionately affected certain communities as recently as 2021. Yet these are relatively benign crises when compared with the other epic failures of the platform in recent years. 

Consider the Cambridge Analytica scandal, wherein, in 2016, Facebook allowed the aforementioned right-leaning political analytics firm to “improperly obtain” the personal data of 87 million users without their consent. If such a galling violation of privacy doesn’t move you, perhaps Facebook’s struggle to control pages that encourage rape, or its “being slow to remove racist and xenophobic posts”, as put by the Wall Street journal, or the millions of views that videos uploaded to the platform portraying violence and murder have received. 

It would be wrong to expect a platform that serves 2.96 billion users daily to be flawless; nonetheless, given the gravitas of its struggles, it is hardly surprising to see U.S. lawmakers moving to increase transparency among and further regulate social media giants like Meta, Twitter, Tiktok, Apple and Google, among others. Earlier this year, Congress passed a bipartisan bill banning TikTok on government devices; other more ambitious bills, such as new tech antitrust legislation and privacy regulations, have stalled out but have at least seen some debate. 

One such proposed regulation recently caught my attention—that of Josh Hawley’s forthcoming social media legislation, which would, among other things, set an age threshold for social media usage nationwide at 16, and would commission “ a wide-ranging congressional mental-health study on the impact social media has on children.” Being a young adult (and recently a teenager) myself, I was struck by how myself and others may be affected by such legislation. I will argue that while Hawley and co. have the right idea behind these changes, they miss the mark in execution.

As already established, social media, is extremely popular, but it is worth noting specifically how popular it is among teenagers. Those who are teenagers or young adults such as myself likely understand in a colloquial sense that social media is ubiquitous among our age cohort in America. A Pew Research study commissioned in 2022 formalizes this implicit knowledge with striking numbers: 67% of American teens have used Tiktok, 62% have used Instagram and 57% have used Snapchat; 54% of teens say it would be “difficult” to give up social media despite 36% of them saying they use it too much; almost half of all teens say they use the internet “almost constantly”; finally, nearly one in five teens report visiting YouTube and/or TikTok “almost constantly”. 

Now overlay those numbers with statistics regarding teenage mental health: A 2022 article featured by the APA reported that “The suicide rate in the U.S. is the highest among wealthy nations, and data suggest that 1 in 5 young women and 1 in 10 young men experience a clinical episode of major depression before age 25.” Matt Richtel, a longtime New York Times reporter focused in part on adolescents, told NPR in a December interview that “If you look at, say, an episode of major depression, it has risen 60% since 2007. The suicide rate, which had been stable from 2000 to 2007, goes up 60% after 2007 to 2018.” Finally, Derek Thompson of the Atlantic compiled ‘sadness or hopelessness’ data from a 2021 CDC survey into a graph that shows the shocking rise in negative feelings among high school students, as seen below:

I don’t mean to imply that the mental health crisis among America’s youth is solely due to social media. Indeed, a good amount of scholarship and research supports the positives of social media among this age demographic. For example, a 2023 study published in Current Psychology found that “From the adolescents’ accounts, social media has both positive and negative impacts on their mental health, but mostly positive impacts during the Covid-19 pandemic.” Another study from 2022 published in the Journal of Technology in Behavioral Science even found that social media could help those with mental health issues: “Findings suggest social media…[has] the potential to facilitate coping surrounding mental health.” 

However, I would be remiss not to acknowledge the negative impact social media is having, an impact backed by a fair wealth of its own research. A 2022 study published in the Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace found that, for “emerging adults”, exposure to “positive self-portrayals of others…related to lower levels of mental health”. A 2022 study entitled “Social Media and Mental Health” published in the American Economic Review offered a damning indictment of Facebook’s deleterious impacts on a college population:

…the rollout of Facebook at a college had a negative impact on student mental health. It also increased the likelihood with which students reported experiencing impairments to academic performance due to poor mental health. Additional evidence on mechanisms suggests the results are due to Facebook fostering unfavorable social comparisons.

Even Meta’s analyses of their own products offer rather sordid assessments of their mental health effects: Leaked slides from a 2019 presentation that the Wall Street Journal obtained read “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls…Teens who struggle with mental health say Instagram makes it worse.”

To some extent, I can speak to these negative impacts myself, and I would wager the same is true for many among my age cohort. I have witnessed many of my peers, including myself, chained to Instagram, doom-scrolling through unrealistically idealized posts, accruing huge amounts of anxiety, FOMO, and general despair. At the urging of my friends and family, I have gradually distanced myself from Instagram and have now given up the app entirely. 

The negatives of social media are imbued into our very design, as explained cogently in a 2019 article entitled “The Dark Psychology of Social Networks” published in The Atlantic: “Human beings evolved to gossip, preen, manipulate, and ostracize. We are easily lured into this new gladiatorial circus.” Social media, itself a very new development in human history, may be at odds with our brain’s fundamental mechanisms of interacting, as argued by Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist,  for decades. Dunbar controversially theorized in 1993 that humans can have no more than 150 meaningful relationships, a finding he has defended in recent years amidst heated criticism.

Ultimately, while interesting and elucidating, these psycho-analyses of social media are of limited use. Given the omnipresence of social media in our lives, it seems somewhat foolhardy to argue over its mere existence. In other words, social media is everywhere for the moment, and it’s not just going to go away. Our energies should be devoted towards making it better, particularly for teenagers, rather than completely outlawing it.

This is what I believe Hawley and others get wrong in their approach to regulating social media. Putting aside the questionable legality of such restrictions under the First Amendment, as well as the difficulty in enforcing them, I don’t think banning social media is the answer. The internet is an indelible part of our culture, particularly as youth; teenagers are going to interact with it and through it one way or another. If the relatively controlled environment of the social media giants were to disappear, the subsequent anarchical system of the internet may wind up directing teenagers through even more perilous avenues.

Moreover, social media does have its upsides, many of which are sheerly intuitive – how else would we be able to find someone with whom we had just a fleeting interaction? Where else would we see some of the most creative and entertaining content that young minds can generate? While I have found my Instagram sabbatical to be incredibly liberating, it hasn’t been without its downsides. I miss the memes, the sports news, and even the pictures of my friends, current and former. For better or for worse, I enjoyed knowing what was going on. 

The negatives, however, cannot be ignored, and Hawley and co. are apt to point them out (even if, in Hawley’s case, his reasoning of supposed censorship of conservatives is somewhat dubious). I find solutions like those proposed by Derek Thompson of The Atlantic in a 2021 piece most appealing. Thompson argues that we should treat Instagram and other social media apps as addictive entities, similar to alcohol, and should subsequently consider raising the minimum age of use, support further research on its impacts, and, as Thompson puts it, “Governments should urge or require companies to build more in-app tools to discourage overuse…most broadly, parents, teens and the press should continue to build a…set of rules around the dangers of excess social media for its most vulnerable users.”

Perhaps nothing summarizes Instagram and co.’s downsides better than these two lines from Thompson’s article: “Instagram seems to create… [a] suffocating prestige economy that pays people in kudos for their appearance and presentation. The negative externality is dangerously high rates of anxiety.” Having been a party to that ‘suffocating prestige economy’, I believe there is an acute need for further research and regulation of these apps. For all their faults, the plight of social media’s young users may rank among the most grievous, and most pressing in need of addressing. The longer we wait to pursue these changes, the more America’s teenagers will suffer.