SDSU professor of psychology Jean Twenge says not all screen time is created equal.

In his State of the Union address on March 1, 2022, President Joe Biden called for tougher restrictions on tech companies in order to protect kids from the harms of social media and to safeguard their privacy.

San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge studies the effects of social media on the well-being of teens and young adults who are part of a generation that has never known a world without smartphones. Twenge is the author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. 

NewsCenter’s Susanne Clara Bard asked Twenge how social media affects young people and what parents can do about it. 

You’ve indicated in past research that social media use in teens is more harmful than screen time alone, what are some of your key findings?

Twenge: Among teens, heavy users of social media (five-plus hours a day) are twice as likely to be depressed as non-users. Facebook’s own research found that using Instagram led to body image issues for many teen girls. Screen time in general (TV, gaming, texting) is also linked to depression, but not as strongly. Depression rates begin to increase after an hour of social media use a day, but the curve is usually more shallow for other types of screen time, with higher depression rates only appearing after three or four hours a day of use. So, two hours a day of social media use seems to be different from two hours a day of TV watching, for example.

What kind of reforms is Biden calling for, and are tech companies likely to take action?

Twenge: During his State of the Union address, President Biden said that social media companies were conducting a “national experiment … on our children for profit.” In the audience was Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who testified to Congress in 2021 about the company’s policies and leaked internal research showing social media’s impact on teens and young adults. In fall 2021, a bipartisan coalition of senators called for social media reforms, particularly around minors. For example, users are required to be 13 to use social media platforms under the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, but age is not verified by the platforms — so they are routinely used by children as young as six.

Thirteen is also likely too young to handle the pressures of social media; some have called for the minimum age to be raised to 16 or 18. Barring that, the platforms could consider a different social media experience for young teens that allowed communication with friends but without access to influencers and other content that might lead to body image issues or unfavorable comparisons. There’s another reason we need to take action: Rates of depression among teens doubled between 2011 and 2019, right as social media and smartphones became popular. It’s of course difficult to prove that technology is behind the rise, but what else caused such a big change in teens’ lives over this time?

Is social media addictive to kids? If so, what can tech companies do to make it less so?

Twenge: Social media platforms use algorithms to keep users coming back as often as possible for as long as possible. You could say they are designed to be addictive. Tech companies have no incentive to change this; it’s essential to their business model. That’s why reforms are probably going to be necessary.

Do all forms of screen time have the same effect on kids?

Twenge: It seems clear that social media, especially for girls, is more strongly associated with mental health issues than screen time in general. Watching TV and streaming services, for example, is less likely to lead to the issues social media is known for, including seeing what friends are doing without you, feeling pressure to post sexy pictures, worrying about likes and followers, and excessively comparing yourself to others. Gaming is often a social activity, which might be why it’s not as strongly associated with depression as social media. General internet use is also linked to depression at about the same rate as social media; that might be because some of that use is on social media sites, or because teens are viewing other content online that has negative consequences for mental health.

Though there are calls for limits on social media on the national level, what would you recommend in terms of steps that parents can take now if they are concerned about the impact of social media on their child?

Twenge: First, kids 12 and under should not be using social media — it’s against the rules (read Twitter policy and Meta policy), and for good reason: They’re just not ready.

Second, put off kids getting social media accounts as long as possible. When they do get an account, limit the amount of time they can spend on it to an hour or less a day (this can be done using the parental controls on most smartphones). This limit can be relaxed somewhat for older teens, but only if they are handling the pressures of social media well — and it may be difficult to tell. My No. 1 rule, though, is this: no phones in the bedroom overnight. It’s just too tempting for teens (and adults!) to use the phone in bed and compromise sleep.

Originally published on SDSU NewsCenter