We Must Dig Kids Out of Social Media Rabbit Holes

The evidence continues piling up that excessive social media use is harming adolescents, and the younger they are, the worst it can get.


We’ve all been there. You go on your phone to unwind for a few minutes, and before you know it, an hour of doomscrolling social media has passed by.

The vast majority of us will probably feel a a potent mixture of emptiness and guilt when this happens, and will promise ourselves that it will never happen again. Unsurprisingly, with all of the misinformation and junk ads present on these platforms, research is beginning to suggest there may be benefits to cutting down on social media use.

Yet there is one group that may be experiencing the effects of social media more acutely than most: today’s adolescents. Though generational lines are always blurry, this population is the first to truly grow up with social media, and their experiences with this modern phenomenon deserves close scrutiny. How does social media affect adolescent psychology? What factors influence this effect?

According to a new study from researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute, the University of Ottawa, the Center for Addiction and Mental Health, and the University of Waterloo, heavy social media use is associated with higher levels of psychological distress.

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As the researchers outline, adolescent mental health problems have increased significantly worldwide. Approximately 1 in 7 adolescents experience mental health problems, with anxiety and depression being the most prevalent. Previous studies have suggested potential links between social media use and mental health problems, which may not come as a surprise given that 86% of adolescents in Ontario, the province examined in the study, report using social media every day, with more than 20% spending over five hours on these platforms daily.

The research team used secondary data from the 2019 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey, the longest school survey still ongoing in Canada, analyzing the data of over 6,800 student across the province. They hypothesized that heavy social media use — characterized as over the cut-off of two hours a day suggested by the Canadian sedentary behaviour guidelines — would be associated with greater psychological distress among the adolescents. Furthermore, the researchers also hypothesized that age (being younger), sex (being female), and parental support (having little) would positively influence this association.

In addition to questions measuring social media use, the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K6) measured depression and anxiety symptoms. Other factors examined included the aforementioned sex, age, and parental support, as well as ethnicity, SES, and BMI.

The study found that nearly half (48%) of adolescents in the sample heavily used social media (more than three hours a day). Additionally, 44% indicated moderate to severe psychological distress, with adolescent females demonstrating greater distress than males.

Following further analysis, the researchers found that heavy social media use was associated with significantly increased odds of severe psychological distress, with this relationship being affected by age (younger students demonstrated a stronger association). However, sex and parental support were not found to modify the association.

The authors suggest a few possible explanations for this association between heavy social media use and severe psychological distress, including poor sleep, exposure to unrealistic beauty standards and body images, and cyberbullying.

However, they highlight that because their study was based on cross-sectional data, they could not examine the social media-psychological distress relationship from the other direction. It is possible, they argue, that adolescents in greater distress may turn more often to social media for comfort or a distraction.

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Borna Atrchian is an MA student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Having previously completed a Behavioural Neuroscience degree, he is passionate about issues where politics and power intersect with psychology and human behaviour. He is interested in understanding the conditions that create distrust of the scientific community, as well as finding the most effective ways to rebuild this trust.