Social media causes poor mental health

Social media causes poor mental health

(First of four parts)

Finally, warning labels like those on cigarettes and alcohol are to be slapped onto social media platforms, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy announced last month, amid studies showing how Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), Snapchat, etc. harm mental, physical, emotional health, particularly those of teens and preteens.

In 2012, when our team of psychologists and parent volunteers studied more than 4,000 high school students in two private institutions in Quezon City, we found correlations between gaming and social media frequency with rates of boredom, attention deficits, depression and addiction. We disseminated the data to pediatricians, neurologists, teachers, administrators, parents and students who expressed alarm, but who also felt helpless in regulating such use.

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In 2014, when mental health issues became too widespread to ignore, I called upon our college faculty to be at the forefront of helping students at risk. My graduate advisee also did her thesis on the effects of social media and depression among teenage girls in a school outside Metro Manila. Significant correlations were found, and my student appeared on television to warn schools and parents about these dangers.

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READ: Can Asian community culture protect against social media harm?

In the meantime, our school instituted measures to address student mental health, including mindfulness, self-care, even pet therapy. These all helped to some extent, but as the millennials graduated and the Zoomers entered college, I found a huge rise in anxiety disorders of all kinds: phobias (not so much over snakes or sharks, but over reciting in class, taking tests, participating in group work), panic attacks (over oral exams, written exams, presentations, being “judged”), generalized anxiety (over the first month of class, parental pressure, paper deadlines, classes not deemed easy As, professors labeled as “challenging”).

In the pandemic, our team of science and engineering faculty studied the best practices of our most resilient students. We found that many still did gaming to de-stress, but decided to limit social media (some stopped altogether in favor of in-person or Zoom chats) because social media was contributing to their anxiety. Again these were correlations, and we discussed findings with government, academe, parents and businesses.

Despite all these efforts, plus the extremely supportive environment afforded by our faculty and administration, anxiety shows no sign of abating. Thus, I was greatly relieved when New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book “The Anxious Generation” finally declared what we had suspected all along—that social media is a direct cause, not just a correlate, of poor mental health in US teens and preteens, especially females. Haidt’s bestseller appeared some months ago, influencing several US states (and likely the Surgeon General) to call for curbs on indiscriminate social media use.

“Between 2010 and 2014, the social lives of American teens moved largely onto smartphones with continuous access to social media, online video games and other internet-based activities,” says Haidt. “This Great Rewiring of Childhood, I argue, is the single largest reason for the tidal wave of adolescent mental illness that began in the early 2010s.

“The first generation of Americans who went through puberty with smartphones (and the entire internet) in their hands [Gen Z] became more anxious, depressed, self-harming and suicidal.

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“The increase in suffering was not limited to the US … No other theory has been able to explain why rates of anxiety and depression surged among adolescents in so many countries at the same time and in the same way. Other factors, of course, contribute to poor mental health, but the unprecedented rise between 2010 and 2015 cannot be explained by the global financial crisis, not by any set of events that happened in the US or in any other particular country.”

(Next week: Asian culture and social media)

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Queena N. Lee-Chua is with the board of directors of Ateneo’s Family Business Center. Get her book “All in the Family Business” at Lazada or Shopee, or the ebook at Amazon, Google Play, Apple iBooks. Contact the author at [email protected].

TAGS: mental health, social media

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