By: Liz Do
25 Aug, 2023
In May, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory about the impact of social media on adolescent mental health, refuelling debate on the topic.
For CIFAR researcher Candice Odgers, her studies challenge the popular assumption that social media is to blame. Odgers, Co-Director of the Child & Brain Development program, was recently invited to the Aspen Ideas Festival to debate Jim Steyer, founder of Common Sense Media and brother of former U.S. Presidential Candidate Tom Steyer, on whether social media is bad for children’s mental health.
After the debate, Odgers sat down with CIFAR to debrief, and share more insights on her high-impact research.
CIFAR: How did the debate go? What were some of your key messages and what were Steyer’s?
Odgers: The question that was posed to both of us was, “Is social media bad for kids’ mental health?” And of course, the public sentiment around this is yes, but what people might not know is that the science around this does not support a resounding yes.
I’ve worked on children’s mental health issues for the past 20 years and I have been tracking digital technology use and its effects on youth for the last decade. I think that young people are entitled to the best of the evidence that we have to offer. Simply rushing in to protect them or going in with good intentions isn’t enough — we need to ensure that the decisions we’re making, about the resources that we’re allocating for them, are guided by the science and by evidence.
The debate started off in a pretty interesting way. Jim Steyer stood up and said, “This is essentially a suite of questions that everybody knows the answers to”. He then gave his reasons. When it was my turn, I started with a confession. And my confession was, I don’t actually like social media, but I’ve been working in the field for 20 years on adolescent mental health issues. Since 2008, I’ve been studying kids on their phones, and tracking what they do in online life and offline, and how that relates to a number of factors ranging from sleep to mental health.
The message I wanted to get across was that the story that people are being told about social media and our kids isn’t supported by science. And these two things can be true: you can hate social media, but it is not the case that it is driving teen suicide, depression and anxiety. There are hundreds of studies now in the field and a number of excellent meta analyses. Jeff Hancock, a researcher from Stanford University just did one; his group analyzed 226 studies, looking at the link between social media and wellbeing, and the estimated effect size is indistinguishable from zero. Correlation doesn’t equal causation — what you find is that when you follow kids over time, it is depressive symptoms that predict social media use, not vice versa.
CIFAR: If the data says that social media is not causing greater harm, then what evidence is backing up this prevailing idea that social media negatively affects children’s mental health?
Odgers: Social media and big tech companies aren’t going anywhere, they are here to stay. There are lots of reasons to want to regulate and to change the way that social media companies operate.
There is also an historical trend that every generation looks back at the last one and isn’t happy with how they spent their time, whether it’s comic books, rock and roll, or video games. Moral panic plays a huge role in this.
One of the biggest findings for me has been this huge disconnect between what people believe — including kids themselves — and what the science says on this topic.
CIFAR: Given this prevalent discourse and the recent high-profile news of the U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory, how do parents make sense of what to do? What’s a more productive discussion to have?
Odgers: I have a lot of respect for the U.S. Surgeon General, I’ve worked with his office on the loneliness report for example, and on advocating for youth mental health resources. What this new report actually says is that there are potential risks and benefits of social media for kids, that there is no conclusive evidence, but that they are going to take a safety-first approach. The news headlines across the entire U.S. and entire world are broadcasting that the Surgeon General of the United States says social media is causing children’s mental health problems, depression, suicide and anxiety — but that is not what the report itself says. I think there’s a science communication issue here.
A more productive conversation is that we are more and more concerned about increasing rates of adolescent mental health problems in our community. That means we need to think about solutions, we need to invest in things that matter. An example of that is, many young people are now coming online to seek out information, support and services for mental health problems. That’s not surprising. In the U.S., the ratio of counselors to students at middle and high schools is one to 500. Many schools do not even have a counselor. So, offline services being absent is clearly a bigger issue to invest time in finding solutions, than finding solutions to kids scrolling social media.
CIFAR: Going back to your work, what exciting collaborations are happening in the Child & Brain Development program right now?
Odgers: We’ve been doing a lot of work within the educational technology (EdTech) space, as well as the mental health space, especially on how we can bring in stronger evidence to a lot of the products and services that are being put out there for kids. For example, through the support of the Jacobs Foundation, and in collaboration with CIFAR, we’ve been launching a number of different projects, some in partnership with industry, some independently, to look at the evidence on impact, so that we can say that a certain curricular innovation or EdTech intervention actually has a positive and measurable impact on children. It’s an important standard to establish, especially if we’re going to subject our kids, teachers and parents to use this much technology in their daily lives.
CIFAR is a registered charitable organization supported by the governments of Canada, Alberta and Quebec, as well as foundations, individuals, corporations and Canadian and international partner organizations.