This essay from Common Sense Media president Jim Steyer is a companion to “Understanding Anxiety,” the Child Mind Institute’s 2018 Children’s Mental Health Report.

At Common Sense, we frequently wrestle with questions about the effects of smartphones and social media on teens. Given the rapidly changing tech landscape and the number of teens who currently own smartphones, one can’t help but wonder: What is all this tech use doing to teens’ well-being? Our own research survey, 2018 Social Media, Social Life, shows that twice as many 13-to 17-year olds own a smartphone today, than they did just 6 years ago (41% in 2012 compared to 89% in 2018.) And, during that same period, the percentage of teens who use social media multiple times a day also doubled, from 34% to 70% (Rideout & Robb, 2018).

But concerns over the negative consequences of social media have grown in tandem with its popularity. Grim reports on teen suicide, addiction, cyberbullying, and eroding social skills have caused many people, from parents to teachers to the tech industry itself, to look at social media as a potential contributor — if not the cause — of these issues. But looking only at  the relationship between how much social media teens use and their levels of anxiety and depression, does not take into account different teens’ experiences.

According to the results of our report, very few teens say that using social media has a negative effect on how they feel about themselves; many more say it has a positive effect. But this is hardly the story that dominates today’s headlines and popular opinion.

There is a deeper issue here that begs a more nuanced understanding. On the one hand, it’s certainly possible that vulnerable teens’ experiences online are leading them to be more depressed, anxious, or isolated. But at the same time, teens who are already experiencing mental health problems are finding support and resources online, particularly from communities and others who struggle with similar problems. A recent report confirms that many teens and young adults actively seek out health information online, and that those who experience depression are using digital tools to learn about and help address their problems (Rideout & Fox, 2018). So, it’s possible that social media use can both cause and provide relief from mental health problems.

Where does that leave parents who worry about their children’s social media use, or want to help their vulnerable children? There are no easy answers. Less time on social media may be beneficial for some, especially becoming more intentional in how they use social media. Encouraging teens to maximize the benefits, while minimizing the trouble-making parts can help too. Cleaning up social feeds to remove accounts that cause stress and sadness, following people who enrich mental wellbeing, and adjusting notifications so that devices become less distracting, are all steps that teens can take, with parents’ help if appropriate.

One-size-fits-all solutions to teens’ mental health problems are unlikely to work, and may in fact backfire. Critics of social media who say that teens should just delete their accounts or stay off social media may  be underestimating the value that it provides. And there’s certainly no guarantee that if social media were to magically vanish that vulnerable teens’ well-being would improve. The Child Mind Institute rightly notes that we would do well to harness social media as one of many tools in the recognition and treatment of anxiety. And, as we continue to adapt to new devices, platforms, and ways of communicating, we must continue to listen to teens’ voices with empathy and openness.  

For more information on social media and teens, visit www.commonsensemedia.org.