Officials say social media is hurting teens. Scientists say it’s complicated.

Facebook, Google and Twitter logos are seen in this combination photo from Reuters files. REUTERS/File Photos/File Photo
Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of Instagram logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: China and U.S. flags are seen near a TikTok logo in this illustration picture taken July 16, 2020. REUTERS/Florence Lo/Illustration/File Photo

As lawmakers around the country consider expanding protections for children online, many officials have accused platforms of causing harm to younger users.

They have faulted companies for “driving” a teen mental health epidemic. They have likened platforms to “digital fentanyl” and the tech industry to “Big Tobacco.” And some have called for sweeping policies to ban or restrict access to social media for kids and teens altogether.

But a new report by the American Psychological Association released Tuesday paints a more complex picture of the relationship between teens and platforms, with top researchers finding that social media use “is not inherently beneficial or harmful to young people” and calling for more research into the matter.

The findings suggest that while scrutiny over social media’s impact on kids’ health is soaring, studies showing direct harm are still somewhat rare – and public research on the topic is racing to catch up.

The report found that the effect of social media on adolescents is usually “dependent” on individual factors, including what teens can do and see online, how they grew up and what their own “strengths and vulnerabilities” are.

In some instances, researchers wrote, “youths’ psychological development may benefit” from social interaction online, especially for “those experiencing mental health crises, or members of marginalized groups.”

The report recommended adults monitor younger users but noted actions “should be balanced” with privacy needs. It suggested platforms should be “tailored” in “age-appropriate” ways, including changes to how companies ask for consent to collect personal data, set time limits for daily usage and recommend content to users. And it called for training teens on healthy use.

Evan Greer, director of the digital rights group Fight for the Future, said the report shows that “actual research is far less conclusive and far more nuanced than lawmakers’ rhetoric.”

But just because the science is still developing doesn’t mean companies and policymakers should wait to act, APA chief science officer Mitch Prinstein said.

“In the policy world, we can do things to protect folks when there’s a preponderance of evidence,” said Prinstein, whose group last year endorsed one key children’s online safety bill.

Tech companies and policymakers have taken steps or offered proposals that mirror some of the report’s recommendations.

In the face of growing pressure, platforms including Instagram, TikTok and YouTube have rolled out new features to give parents more control over their kids’ activity, limit how much time they spend online and make tighter privacy settings a default.

In Washington, lawmakers have introduced a flurry of children’s online safety bills, including to make it a legal duty for platforms to prevent certain harms to kids and to require platforms to build safety features into their design. State policymakers have proposed a series of similar bills to create a so-called “age-appropriate design code” for how companies build their products.

Lawmakers at both the state and federal level have also proposed stricter limits on social media access, with Utah and Arkansas banning social media for children and requiring parental consent for teens, and Senate lawmakers introducing a measure with similar restrictions.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), one of the lawmakers leading a bill to set an age limit for kids on social media, said the “new report backs up what we already know: social media and the personalized algorithms that feed addictive harmful content are no match for kids.”

Prinstein said the evidence doesn’t support the age-limit efforts.

“An all-or-nothing approach is not reflecting what we know, scientifically, is best for kids. . . . The age limit has a high likelihood of backfiring,” he said.

The report argued that “age-appropriate use of social media should be based on each adolescent’s level of maturity” and noted that “adolescents mature at different rates.”

And Prinstein said the evidence suggests social media is one of “many” factors contributing to a teen mental health crisis, not a “predominant or leading cause.”

The researchers noted their report had its own limitations.

The group said that while results showing a “causal” link between social media and harms to teens are “rare,” it could in part be because the data needed to draw those conclusions “may be available within technology companies,” but not to outside researchers.

They also said that due to a lack of research, the “long-term” impact of social media use on adolescents remains “largely unknown.” To that end, they called for a “substantial investment in research funding.”

Lawmakers last year secured $15 million in funding for research into how social media impacts children as part of the year-end omnibus package.

But Prinstein said the current funding levels are just a “drop in the bucket.”

“We need a $100 million mental health moonshot investment in child mental health, and a substantial portion of that could be dedicated to understanding social media,” he said.



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