Social Media Addiction and Mental Health: The Growing Concern for Youth Well-Being

Kenta Minamitani, Stanford LLM 2024

The Growing Mental Health Crisis and Social Media

Mental health problems have become a major public health issue in the United States, affecting a significant portion of the population. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), nearly one in five U.S. adults is living with a mental illness, and the prevalence of mental health problems among youth is even more alarming (NIMH, 2023). The widespread use of social networking sites has been identified as a contributing factor to the growing mental health crisis, especially among younger generations.

The Link Between Social Media and Mental Health Issues

The link between social media and mental health issues has been well documented in numerous studies and research papers. A systematic review found that the use of social networking sites is associated with an increased risk of depression, anxiety, and psychological distress (Keles, et al., 2020). The associations, though not by itself proof of causation, at least some reason for concern. Additionally, this association is particularly strong in adolescents compared to younger children (Twenge & Campbell, 2018). Moreover, in the United States, the 12-month prevalence of major depressive episodes among adolescents increased from 8.7% in 2005 to 11.3% in 2014 (Mojtabai, et al., 2016). The new media screen activities have been suggested as one of the causes of the increase in adolescent depression and suicide (Twenge, et al., 2017).

Although research has not necessarily shown that the use of social media has a causal relationship with poorer mental health in young people, health professionals and policy makers are becoming increasingly wary of the use. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is calling for increased transparency and for companies to prioritize user wellbeing over revenue, as various studies have shown negative effects on social media use, especially on the mental health of youth. (Surgeon General, 2021). In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics warns that “media use and screen time are associated with increased risks for children and adolescents, such as attention deficits, increased aggression, low self-esteem, and depression” (American College of Pediatricians, 2020). The American Psychological Association (APA) also highlights the correlation between high social media use and poor mental health among adolescents (APA, 2024).

New York City’s Unprecedented Action

Recognizing the severity of the problem, New York City has taken the unprecedented step of classifying social networking sites as a public health threat (Ables, 2024). The City of New York, the New York Department of Education, and the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation have filed a lawsuit against TikTok, Meta, Snap, and YouTube to hold the companies responsible for “fueling the nationwide youth mental health crisis” (Gold, 2024).

The lawsuit filed by New York City is a significant development in the ongoing debate about the responsibility of social media companies to address the negative impact of their platforms on mental health. The U.S. Surgeon General has called on these companies to improve the safety, health, and well-being of their users (Surgeon General, 2021). This includes implementing stricter moderation policies, providing resources for mental health support, and collaborating with researchers and health professionals to better understand the impact of social media on mental health.

A Multi-Faceted Approach to Addressing the Issue

However, addressing the complex relationship between social media and mental health requires a multifaceted approach that goes beyond the actions of social media companies. From a legal perspective, this could include government regulation and individual legal action. Policymakers could consider implementing stricter rules and guidelines for social media companies to follow, such as requiring them to prioritize user well-being and mental health over engagement and profits. This could include mandating regular mental health impact assessments, providing resources for mental health support, and implementing stricter content moderation policies to reduce the spread of harmful and toxic content. However, since strong opposition is expected from users and companies on human rights grounds, including violations of freedom of expression, it is crucial to organize the evidence to date and explain convincingly that the restriction is urgently needed for public health reasons and that there are no other measures that could be taken.

Mental health professionals must adapt to the changing landscape of technology and incorporate social media literacy into their treatment plans. The NIMH emphasizes the importance of teaching individuals how to maintain a healthy relationship with social media, including setting limits on use, engaging in offline activities, and seeking support when needed (NIMH, 2023).

Educational institutions also have a critical role to play in promoting digital literacy and responsible social media use among students. Schools should incorporate digital literacy education into their curricula and teach students how to navigate social media in a healthy and productive way. Parents and caregivers must also be involved in this process by setting appropriate boundaries and modeling responsible social media use, as parental media monitoring has protective effects on a variety of academic, social, and physical outcomes for children (Gentile, et al., 2014).

As individuals, we must take responsibility for our own mental health and well-being in the digital age. This means being mindful of the time we spend on social networking sites, curating our feeds to include positive and uplifting content, and prioritizing offline activities and relationships. In this case, we can use the guidelines or recommendations published by the professionals; for example, the APA has published “Social Media Recommendations” to advocate the appropriate use of social media based on scientific evidence (APA, 2023).

Looking Ahead

As we look to the future, it is clear that the issue of social networking and mental health will continue to be a pressing concern. As technology advances and new platforms emerge, it is critical that we remain vigilant and proactive in addressing the potential risks associated with these services. Increased research and collaboration among policymakers, legal experts, social media companies, mental health professionals, and educators is needed to address this growing issue and develop effective strategies to promote healthy social media use and mitigate its potential harms.