Senior Research Scientist Linda Charmaraman, Ph.D., submitted this statement for the record in connection with the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee's February 14, 2023 hearing, "Protecting Our Children Online." In the statement, she notes some important policy directions and research findings that apply to youth, social media, and mental health, and urges the Committee to recognize that social media can have positive as well as negative effects on youth mental health.
My name is Linda Charmaraman, and I am a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. I received a Ph.D. in human development and education from UC Berkeley in 2006. I am now the director of the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab at the Wellesley Centers for Women, studying issues related to youth, the media they use, and how that media impacts their wellbeing. Much of my recent work stems from being a PI on a longitudinal grant from the National Institutes of Health that follows middle schoolers into high school, examining the risks and resiliency in early adolescents using social media. I am submitting this testimony in my personal capacity to describe what I think are some important policy directions and research findings that apply to youth, social media, and mental health.
The negative impacts of social media on youth mental health are well documented in the media: cyberbullying, poor body image, fear of missing out (“fomo”), and compulsive use that interferes with sleep. One of the very first assignments I give for the undergraduate course I teach on Social Technologies and Adolescent Development is to find the latest news stories about teen social media use. Every semester, there are countless headlines that signal an unwelcome spell that has taken over our youth or how unkind the online world can be to impressionable young minds. There might only be one article that my students can find that paints a more balanced picture.
Due to this observation, I would like to remind us of some key points that apply to this research, and research in other fields as well. We must remember that correlation does not equal causation. If in a particular study, youth who use social media are found to have more symptoms of depression, we often don’t know whether those youth were more depressed to begin with. Does social media cause depression, or do depressed youth tend to use social media? Often, more in-depth, longitudinal research is needed to determine the direction of causality, that is, to find out whether the chicken or the egg came first.
For instance, there was heightened concern around the worrisome rise in depression and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since many people also noted that there was a substantial rise in technology use for schoolchildren and record levels of downloading social media platforms such as TikTok (the #1 most downloaded app in the first quarter of 2020), many people assume that these two parallel events must not only be related to each other, but that one causes the other. In our research during the pandemic, we demonstrated that although there was indeed an increase in mental health difficulties and increased use of social media, they were not statistically related to each other. In other words, there were other social factors beyond social media use that were more critical in explaining this increase in mental health struggles.
That being said, we cannot rely solely on the results of a single study to make policy decisions. This is especially the case with internal, preliminary findings and self-published materials off the internet—they are not subject to the academic standards of peer-review, therefore policy decisions should not be made based on such documents. In a state-of-the-field review, the authors concluded that there was no consensus about the impact of social media on youth mental health—that is, studies demonstrated that there were positive correlations, negative correlations, and even no relationship at all. Though individual studies can make a big splash in the media, they often have a small sample size, a non-diverse sample, or other limitations that limit the usefulness of their findings. Reporters who write about them may not have read the whole study and may not be aware of these limitations, and researchers themselves may overinflate the importance of their findings.
That’s why it’s important to look at the wider body of research on this topic, and to understand that this body of research does not point to one black-and-white conclusion. Many studies have nuanced findings that include both negative and positive effects of social media on youth. In today’s testimony, I would like to focus on 3 key points related to this complexity.
- Age restrictions on social media (e.g., COPPA) have been mainly policy decisions based on consumer protections rather than on psychological and mental wellbeing research.
- Social media can have positive effects, particularly for marginalized youth—groups like LGBTQ youth, youth of color, and others.
- Youth can take an active role in using social media in a healthy way.
Let us now look at each of these key points in some more detail.
#1: Research on the effects of social media on the youngest users is scarce, and more research is needed.
The federally mandated age minimum of 13 for social media use set by COPPA originates from a governmental entity (US Federal Trade Commission) rather than from science. It stems from a need to protect children from commercial interests and collection of their personal data without their knowledge rather than from a developmental rationale.
My lab recently published one of the first studies on the effects of early social media initiation. We found that despite the negative press about early social media use, tweens and young teens were more frequently engaging in positive and supportive behaviors online compared to negative ones; however, if a child begins using social media (e.g., Instagram, Snapchat) at age 10 or younger, they were more likely (compared to those who started at age 13 and older) to have problematic digital behaviors, such as having online friends or joining social media sites parents would disapprove of, more unsympathetic online behaviors, and greater likelihood of online harassment and sexual harassment victimization. It’s important to note that beginning social media use at age 11 or 12 wasn’t significantly worse developmentally than starting at age 13. The youngest initiators were even found to have one positive benefit compared to their older counterparts: They were more likely to engage in socially supportive and civically engaged online behaviors.
As you can see, the evidence isn’t clear-cut or black-and-white about the most developmentally appropriate age to begin using social media. As mentioned before, no single study can be the solution to our problems. More longitudinal work needs to be conducted to understand the long-term benefits and challenges in diverse youth populations.
I like to think of social media onboarding as a metaphor for learning how to drive. Although adolescents tend to be more impulsive and not think ahead to future consequences as much as adults, we don’t take away their ability to learn how to drive and wait for them to be more mature and ready. We provide them with guidance, practice sessions, and lessons before they go out on their own; we have laws about seat belts and texting while driving.
When it comes to social media, some of the teaching and learning happens within a “village” to help new users understand how to navigate this digital world at their fingertips. Parents are not the only ones in the family who can be an important resource—siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles can offer signposts along the journey. Social media platforms can develop features that nudge youth (and all users) to take breaks or reduce their exposure to negative content. Educators can incorporate the soft skills needed to thrive in a 21st century classroom. If there was a federal mandate to truly fund and welcome social media literacy and digital citizenship programs in schools across the country, I believe we could empower the next generations to be more informed users and respectful digital citizens.
#2: Social media can have positive effects, particularly for marginalized youth.
Moving beyond research from past generations that primarily focused on the cyberbullying and harassment of stigmatized individuals, social media can be particularly important for marginalized groups like LGBTQ youth, youth of color, homeless youth, and youth with intellectual or socioemotional disabilities. Online, they can have the space to develop their identities, find community that may be difficult for them to find in person, and access resources that support their wellbeing as well as opportunities for civic engagement.
For example, social media has historically served as a space where LGBTQ youth can develop their identities and find community. This can be particularly important for their mental health when there isn’t a supportive in-person community available to them. In my lab’s 2019 survey of over 1,000 children ages 10 to 16, we found that LGBTQ youth were more likely to join an online group in order to reduce social isolation or feelings of loneliness, suggesting that they were able to reach out to and engage with social media networks outside of their in-person peer circles in supportive and fortifying ways.
Social media can also provide critical resources for LGBTQ youth. They may use it to find LGBTQ spaces in their local community and to identify LGBTQ-friendly physicians, therapists, and other care providers. Finally, it can serve as a springboard for their activism. A 2013 report by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network surveying nearly 2,000 LGBTQ youth ages 13 to 18 found that 77% had taken part in an online community supporting a social cause. This signals that online spaces may be critical resources to foster civic engagement.
Similarly, youth of color—the most active users of social media—may use social media to find community and to get involved in social causes. In one study, our lab found that Black and Latinx youth aged 11-15 were more likely than white and Asian youth to join online groups that made them feel less lonely and isolated. These online communities included group chats on Snapchat, House Party, WhatsApp, and Discord, as well as groups related to things like anime fandom, sports, or hobbies.
In a study of older adolescents (ages 18-25), Asian Americans reported using social media to seek support during difficult times, which is thought to be a way of navigating the stigma around mental health that reigns in many Asian cultures. Our lab is currently collaborating with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston on an NIH-funded study of how discrimination affects the mental health of Asian American adolescents, and how parents, peers, and social media can be leveraged to mitigate the negative health consequences.
For these groups and others, social media can help them build relationships, decrease loneliness, increase their self-confidence and self-esteem, and introduce them to ways to get involved in social causes. All of these things can benefit their mental health.
#3: Teens can take an active role in using social media in a healthy way.
Every summer, I teach free workshops for middle schoolers on how to use social media in a healthy way. In the past few years, we have focused particularly on middle school girls. Over five days, the students examine the role of technology in their lives and co-design an app to promote positive social media use. The workshops are an offshoot of my lab’s NIH-funded study of longer-term health and wellbeing effects of social technologies, which has been ongoing since 2018.
In surveys after the 2020 workshop, girls reported increases in the importance of sharing about their abilities, achievements, and future career plans online and feeling of belonging in online communities. They also experienced significant increases in self-esteem and agency. We continue to study the effects of these workshops in order to gain a better understanding of how youth can be educated to protect themselves online.
The design of these annual workshops is informed by our lab’s newly formed Youth Advisory Board, composed of middle school, high school, and college-aged youth who are former workshop attendees or co-facilitators. Their input has been incredibly valuable, and is a testament to the fact that youth should have a seat at the table—both when decisions are made about social media educational programs and when decisions are made about social media platforms they use. They are experts in their own online experiences, and can help ensure protections are effective.
Historically, the power of peer influence has typically had a negative connotation. Our recent research has found that despite the fact that youth turn to their parents more often than their peers about digital citizenship issues, the advice that peers give to each other was significantly more likely to have effects on later positive use of social media.
What I have found over the course of teaching this workshop is that when youth are empowered with information about how social media platforms work, and how they can use social media to their advantage rather than their detriment, they are able to take control of their experience on social media in a way that benefits their mental health and overall wellbeing—and that of their peers as well. This sector of the population has been underutilized in the UX design of social media platforms, though there has been a recent uptick in the importance of co-designing with youth in the industry.
Though social media can certainly have negative effects on youth mental health, I’d urge the Committee to recognize that it can also have positive effects. These positive effects can be particularly pronounced for marginalized youth, including LGBTQ youth, youth of color, and others. It’s important to see beyond the black-and-white headlines, and to base policy decisions on the nuanced body of scientific research that is available. Not only can social media be a developmentally rich and healthy resource to help tweens and teens connect with others, withholding it from them (e.g., stricter age cut-offs) may even be a detriment to their mental wellbeing. Decision-making should also involve the youth who will be affected, as they have in-depth knowledge of the social media platforms they use and can bring innovative ideas to the table. There has been too much emphasis on what youth should not do online (e.g., risks), and very little guidance on what youth should do (e.g., to be resilient against risks). Together, we can create policies that protect their mental health.
March 2, 2023