April 22, 2024

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How social media affects teens’ mental health and well-being, with Linda Charmaraman, PhD

Kim Mills: In September, documents leaked to the media by a former Facebook employee revealed that the company’s internal research had found that its apps could be harmful for teens, particularly for teenage girls’ mental health. The headlines about toxic social media seem to confirm parents’ worst fears about the effects of all the time that kids are spending online. Recent surveys have found that 95% of U.S. teens have a smartphone, or access to one, and more than 80% have at least one social media account on Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Facebook, or other sites.

But psychologists’ research has suggested that there are nuanced answers to the questions surrounding how all this social media use is affecting teens’ health and wellbeing. For instance, is there such a thing as healthy social media use for teens? And if so, what does that look like? Does social media cause depression and anxiety, or conversely, can it be a source of social and emotional support for kids? Do teens understand how social and media algorithms work, and why they see the content that they do online? Why does that matter? And what can parents, educators and others do to maximize the benefits and minimize the potential harms of social media?

Welcome to Speaking of Psychology, the flagship podcast of the American Psychological Association, that examines the links between psychological science and everyday life. I’m Kim Mills. Our guest today is Dr. Linda Charmaraman, a senior research scientist and director of the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab at the Wellesley Centers for Women. She studies young people’s social media use and is conducting a three-year National-Institutes-of-Health-funded study to follow middle school students and their parents during this critical developmental period. She’s looking at how social technologies, including smartphones, social media, YouTube, and gaming affect kids’ health and wellbeing in the longer term. She’s published dozens of journal articles and seven book chapters, and has been widely quoted in the media offering advice to parents, educators, policymakers, and others. 

Thank you for joining us today.

Linda Charmaraman, PhD: Thank you so much for having me.

Mills: Let’s start with the Facebook documents leak, since that’s been such a big news story. The headline was that Facebook’s own research found that its platforms, particularly Instagram, could be harmful to teens’ mental health. Facebook’s research found associations with anxiety, depression, body image issues, and even suicidal thoughts. Were you surprised by these findings, and do they square with what you and other researchers have found?

Charmaraman: I’m so glad you mentioned that study, because it has definitely been going around in my circles. And let me just say the first answer to your question is no, I’m not surprised, because there’s been hundreds of studies about social media platforms in general that have differential impacts on young people depending on how they use it. And so I’m not surprised that there’s some data coming from their internal sources that shows some of the harm that can be found. Other studies have found similar findings. In fact, one of our body-image-related papers about teenage girls and boys have found similar things about, about 20% or 30% of them have some kind of social media-related body dissatisfaction resulting in it, and that there are celebrities that they friend that can exacerbate some of those issues.

And so the point I wanted to make about that is that this research is out there, peer reviewed in academic journals, and it isn’t until there’s a leak in the press that gets wind of this, that it’s suddenly national news, it’s on people’s news feeds all the time, even though this is not peer reviewed data and it’s not nationally representative, it’s actually based on pretty small samples. So the national attention it’s getting, I think it’s somehow misdirecting what should be really the point of it, is that we need to increase our attention on social media literacy programming in the schools, and parental guidance, and monitoring and empowering youth to use it in more positive ways without relying on an industry or a product to keep them safe.

Mills: So how are teens using social media these days, and what sites are they on? We all hear that Facebook is for old people now. So where do young people congregate online and how do social technologies fit into their everyday lives?

Charmaraman: Yes, yes. Well, I am specializing in middle school youth, so 11- to 15-year-olds, and the ones that are in my study of, I’m over about 1500 youth that I’m following over time, in their top 10 sites, Facebook doesn’t even crack the top 10. Instagram is number two. So YouTube is number one and then Instagram and then TikTok and then Snapchat. So, they’re all very close together though, about 70% of them are on Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and they definitely are interacting in ways that are being more and more common nowadays, to use it as not just connection, but for also raising awareness of social issues that they care about.

So, there’s ways that youth are using it that might not be what other generations might imagine them using it for, there’s a lot of narrative out there that it’s a lot of online drama, which there is, there are online drama instances, of course, and there’s a lot of cyber bullying, there’s a lot of media headlines about all the negative things that can go wrong, the worst case scenarios. But the Pew Research Center, in a nationally representative sample, found that only about 20-something percent have really negative experiences on social media, but mostly, almost 80% of people have primarily positive and connecting experiences and socially supportive experiences. And so what I’m hoping for, knowing about this data, and knowing what kids are actually doing on these sites, is that we support the positive interactions and also help prevent some of the negative. But knowing that all of it is happening, not just the negative.

Mills: But for that 20%, it’s pretty important. They could be having some issues, for example, with teenage girls around body image. Are you seeing big gender differences in the way that young people use social media and the effects that it can have?

Charmaraman: Yes, definitely some gender differences. You can probably see it in your own households out there, where the boys are more gravitating towards games and sites like Discord and Twitch and YouTube and watching videos of other gamers, and girls are a lot more about the image-based platforms, like Instagram and Snapchat and—where you can use filters and create this other vision of themselves. Girls are more likely to use Pinterest than boys. So there’s definitely gender differences that are seen in offline instances as well, where boys just gravitate towards certain activities more than girls.

Mills: And in terms of the negative effects, are there more negative effects for girls or boys, or is it evenly distributed?

Charmaraman: Yes, it really depends on what constructs you’re interested in looking at. For instance, for body image, girls report—are socially groomed to be able to report that they experience that more. I’d say it is a thing happening in boys, but they’re not socially groomed to admit it as much, I would venture to guess. But it does happen in boys. And for girls, especially since there’s such a huge societal preoccupation about girls’ bodies and needing to comment about girls’ bodies, and to adhere to perfect beauty ideals, that girls have much more than boys in a lot of cases. And so there’s a lot more just being self-conscious about those things, the images you put up and how it relates to your social status online and offline.

So girls have been shown to maybe have a little bit more of a tendency to be socially comparing themselves to other people, and perhaps to other girls. So not just their bodies, but just in general. And when you have that vulnerability, it often affects your self-esteem and how you feel about yourself. And so it’s all connected in a way. So it could be that they’re already bringing that vulnerability to how they use platform, and that’s why they go down a road that might be not as happy road than the boys, that might not be caring about the social comparisons and body comparisons.

Mills: So a moment ago you mentioned cyber bullying, and I know that’s gotten a lot of media coverage over the years. How common is it? Has it changed? Is it as frequent a concern among the kids you are dealing with?

Charmaraman: Yeah, no, that’s a very interesting question because in one of my latest papers, we’re looking at subpopulations in specific groups of adolescents in which we’re trying to figure out, are they more prone to being victimized by cyber bullying? For instance, we had this paper about LGBTQ youth, and how definitely the dominant narrative in the past has been that LGBTQ youth are harassed in significantly greater frequency than their straight peers. And in our latest research, we try to look this community-based sample in which is representative of the communities and not just people who identify as LGBTQ youth, we compare them with straight youth and how they’re experiencing cyber bullying, and they weren’t significantly different in how they experienced cyber bullying, the frequency.

It could just be that I’m also in a very liberal part of the country, I live in the Northeast where it’s very progressive. However, it is really promising to hear that it might not be as much of the dominant narrative. Now, the narrative we found instead of cyber bullying, which is what everybody wants to talk about, is more about social isolation, that there’s still a lot of social isolation with LGBT youth and not knowing who to talk to about their different identities, and about the support that they might need that maybe only online sources can get because of their geographic restrictions. And so the narrative might want to be a little more broad than just peer-on-peer harassment. It could be that there’s other things going on in different vulnerable youths’ lives in which social media could play a role in.

Mills: So it sounds like there might be something positive then, at least for the LGBTQ kids in social media, that maybe gives them an opportunity to see examples of how their lives might turn out, or connect with other LGBTQ kids, that’s what you’re saying?

Charmaraman: Yes. And some sites are a lot more amenable to, and more open and receptive and even celebratory. For instance, Tumblr has been a site that the LGBTQ community has cited as—even back 10 years ago, Tumblr was something that was very open or receptive, although there are some algorithms that recently called into play some of the censoring that was happening based on certain keywords. But overall, even though Tumblr has lost popularity in the general public sphere, in our recent surveys that even just in fall 2020, that youth, LGBT youth, in this age range of 11 to 15 are still using Tumblr and still finding it to be a safe space for them to explore their identities. And it’s just wonderful to know that those things don’t come and go as easily as people think of as social media sites being fads.

Mills: Are some of these sites inherently riskier for teens than others? Like TikTok where you see kids all the time who are out making videos of themselves, or are they doing things that might be risky? Kids will always do things that are risky and crazy, but are there some sites that are more perilous for kids of this age?

Charmaraman: I would say it’s not the site per se, but certain sites have features in which if users know about those features and how to manipulate those features for not innocent purposes, then that’s when we get into the risky categories. The sites that the parents are less familiar with, for instance, TikTok, probably parents are less familiar with that than Facebook. And so they don’t know all the ways that they can hide their identities, or create other accounts in which the parents don’t monitor, or they don’t know the existence of, so they can do wacky things that they probably wouldn’t want their parents to know about. And so it’s not exactly about the site per se, it’s about how the users find ways to not be under surveillance of the adults that might judge that—their grandma, they don’t want grandma to see that TikTok, but it’s okay, their friends will have a laugh over that particular video, but the grandma will need to see this other side of them.

Mills: So a lot of parents want to know at what age is it okay for kids to get a smartphone, or social media account. What would you tell them? How young is too young for social media?

Charmaraman: That’s a great question, and a very common concern, I have to say. The average age of getting a smartphone in the U.S. is I think 10.3, the last I saw. And that’s pretty young, that’s fourth grade. I have a fourth grader, and I don’t think that she is quite ready for it, but there’s a lot of reasons why people get a smartphone, sometimes it’s very instrumental to just where are they at. How do I get you a ride? How do I pick you up? Very basic ways to communicate with your family when you’re not right next to each other all the time.

I would say that it really depends on the family and the kid, and the use of the phone, because in our research, we found that most of the time when you look at the general trajectory of how people start getting initiated into their first social media sites, it’s because they first got that phone. So what do you think is going to happen next? When they get the phone, they’re not going to just be on Google, searching Google and being on YouTube. They’re going to find out that their friends are all on these other sites and they’re going to start downloading things. And so usually about a year later, they’re on at least one or two, and then two years later, they’re on three, four, five different sites, because that’s just the natural progression of the peer influence.

And if their school site has a huge peer pressure to have everybody on TikTok, then it’s very likely that your kid is going to be pressured into it. So it depends on the peer group. We have some research that we’re doing on actually the age of initiation, and if it makes a difference in the long run. And we are finding that, the younger that they are initiating, let’s say in terms of social media, and this is not smartphone, this is social media, and specifically Instagram and Snapchat. We wanted to look at these specifically, because there’s so many different ones out there. We wanted to be very clear.

Usually, the younger that they are, the more likely they are to have more online harassment happen, because they’ve been on it longer, they have more followers, they have more chances for mean things happening online, more online drama. There’s a lot more behaviors in which they’re doing things that are secretive that their parents don’t know about, maybe they’re adding friends that the parents wouldn’t approve of, or they’re adding sites that their parents wouldn’t approve of. They’re more likely to get a little bit fixated on the phone more the younger they are, because it’s part of their everyday routine in a way.

And although one positive thing about starting early on social media that we found in our studies is that they’re more likely to know about the positive behaviors and socially supportive behaviors that are a part of being a part of a community, a socially supportive community. But if you start much, much later, a lot of times there’s a lot hesitancy to jump into community that you weren’t a part of for a long time. And if you’re 14, there’s so much that has happened on your peer social media sites and communities that you almost feel left out, you almost don’t even know how to jump in there. You didn’t grow some of those behaviors that will help you find the social support that you might need.

Mills: Yeah. So there’s a lot of pressure then to keep up.

Charmaraman: Absolutely.

Mills: So there’s been a growing public awareness in recent years of how social media algorithms control what we all see online, and that these contribute to the political polarization and other societal problems that we’re living with right now. In your research, have you found, are kids and teens, maybe some of the older teens, aware of these algorithms? Do they understand how they work and why they’re seeing the stuff that they’re seeing?

Charmaraman: I was actually surprised that in some of the interview studies that I’ve done how much middle schoolers both know and don’t know. So they know that there are algorithms out there. They’ve heard that word. They know that there’s content that’s fed to them based on what they have already inputted. They know that basic thing. And the thing that I think is really interesting is that most of the time they don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. They don’t think there’s anything creepy, or sinister. Or they think, wow, they know about me? I’m famous, or I must be important that they want to know more about my habits. So I don’t have any desire to shield what these companies want to know about me.

So that’s why there are protections against people from signing up for social media too young, because you’re supposed to be 13 due to federal requirements of COPPA, and advertisers aren’t supposed to find out information about people younger than 13. And for a good reason, because of these understandings and comments from middle schoolers that they’re happy to give up their information, they’re happy to keep their GPS on, and show everybody where they’re at, and check in at all these locations, because it makes them feel famous, it makes them feel seen.

Mills: What do you tell parents then, some who might be listening to this discussion once we’ve posted it, about the best ways to encourage healthy social media use in kids? Are there warning of potentially unhealthy social media use that parents should be looking out for?

Charmaraman: Yes. Yes. There’s the normative levels of addiction. And then, when you first start on a site, or a game, you want to be on it all the time. So that’s the normative level, but if it goes into other areas of your life that you find they’re missing meals, they are not as interested in hanging out with their friends offline anymore, they are losing sleep. They’re not doing well in school, because they are so hooked on whatever it is that screen is calling to them. That’s when you might need to maybe ask your pediatrician, ask for a school counselor to check in, ask if the teacher has any ideas in their class about how this might be affecting their schoolwork. And there’s just a lot of ways in which parents could know the signs, because you will be the ones to know the signs before other people outside the family.

And so if you’re waiting for somebody else to say, your kid has a problem, it’s really going to be about your nuclear family unit that will really be on the same page. You are actually seeing them day-to-day, how they’ve changed over time, and you can keep track of that. I think a lot of conversations about social media and right from the time that you give them the first iPad, the first time you give them their first phone, or let them use your phone, every time that they want to start up a new social media site, that’s a great time to have another conversation. It’s not just one talk. It’s multiple talks over many periods of time at each different age stages.

When you’re about to start middle school for the first time, when you’re about to start high school for the first time, what are the new rules that you might want to have in place? Because the rules that were good for sixth grade are not going to be the same rules you might have for a 10th grade, when there’s a lot more autonomy and a lot of things that are happening that the parents really have no idea about. But if you’ve instilled with them the values that you want them to continue on in the cyberspace world, and you feel comfortable that they’ve been able to handle themselves in healthy ways and not get too over concerned about the drama that’s happening, and know about the social media literacy behind it, fake news and all that kind of stuff, then you can feel that you’ve done your part in that journey of, those discussions over a long period of time.

Mills: So I’m wondering if there are ways to make these social media platforms safer for young people, particularly the middle schoolers that you’re studying? I’m just wondering how do we square the desire of the companies that make and provide these platforms to be successful with protecting young people from the potential harms?

Charmaraman: Well, one thing that probably should be done with much more rigor is to really monitor who are these people that are on your sites, and how old are they really? Because technically there’s only, you have to be 13, but it’s so easy to bypass those age requirements and put in a fake birth date. And I think companies, it would be in the best interest of their users if they could monitor that more and be really clear about if this is a parent-approved signing up, and to have real accountability in that, because a lot of times there’s these long user agreements that people barely scan maybe when they sign up for the next app, the next site. And so I think if there were user-friendly language agreements, user agreements that were for youth, so they can understand what are the privacy considerations, what are they going to use with their data in the language that they could understand? I think that would be one step to make sure that they are protected in the privacy and prevention of harassment concerns that parents have.

Mills: Do you think these companies are really motivated to do this though? Is there a way to get them to do it without having to establish some sort of a, I don’t know, watchdog agency, some federal regulators that are going to crack down out?

Charmaraman: Yeah. They are a business and they have a capitalist model perhaps, and so I think there needs to be probably some kind of external regulation system, whether it’s the government, or some other board of overseers that understand the implications of this, maybe people who are computer science programmers, ethical decision makers, psychologists, therapists and educators and parents, and a board of overseers to understand this process, because they don’t have financial conflicts of interest like businesses and advertisers who may only care about the head count, they only care about the number of clicks, they only care about how many ads can we put within this YouTube segment, and how many times can we place ads within this five-minute video?

So they have a whole other set of concerns. And another thing is that the COPPA requirement of age 13 is based on a federal regulatory body that isn’t necessarily researchers. It’s not based on research. And that’s why I have this NIH grant, that’s part of the reason why we wanted to do it with middle schoolers, to understand this vulnerable age of anywhere between nine to 13, when they’re signing up for social media for the first time, what are the implications of 10 versus 12 versus 14? Is there a sweet spot of when is, does it really not matter anymore if you hit this age, then you’re good to go, or if there’s a critical age in which maybe you shouldn’t go any younger than this because X, Y, Z might happen? It’s a longitudinal study, so we still don’t have all the answers that we want to tell the listeners today about. And we look forward to being able to share that, but that’s definitely the kind of research that needs to be happening at this a critical age group.

Mills: And then what’s the practical application of your work when it’s done? Do you make it available to the social media companies, or does it just go to NIH? How does it get used and translated into something that will make a difference?

Charmaraman: Yes, yes. That’s the perennial dilemma of all of researchers who get funded—dissemination and translation to the different audiences in which it needs to go to, whether it’s policymakers, marketing executives, to computer programmers, to the general public and families, educators, there’s so many different pieces to the messages that we want to convey that it needs to be its own project, its own separate project with a big team of people to try to advocate for different audiences to be able to find things in ways that they can reach it.

So things like webinars, things like doing a podcast, doing open access publications whenever possible so that the general public can click on your article and not just be behind a firewall where you have to pay if you’re a part of an institution, having YouTube channel ready for the different disseminations of your pieces, having these five-minute video abstracts of your pieces to reach more people who don’t have the time or the inclination to read academic articles from front to back. These are all conversations that we need to have. We need to have more convenings and think tanks of people of many different backgrounds that could chip away at all the different ways that we could help families and youth use social media in healthier ways.

Mills: Well, thank you for joining us today, Dr. Charmaraman. I think what you’re doing is really important. I appreciate the work that you are doing to keep our kids safe.

Charmaraman: Thank you so much. And I can’t wait to continue this conversation.

Mills: You can find previous episodes of Speaking of Psychology at www.speakingofpsychology.org, or on Apple, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have comments or ideas for future podcasts, you can email us at [email protected]. Speaking of Psychology is produced by Lea Winerman. Our sound editor is Chris Condayan. 

Thank you for listening. For the American Psychological Association, I’m Kim Mills.

 

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