Subscriber OnlyCulture

Teenage anxiety and smartphones: Is the answer to ban social media?

Unthinkable: Evidence linking social media use to depression continues to mount but experts disagree on how best to respond

ast month Utah became the first state in the United States to ban anyone under 18 from using platforms such at TikTok, Instagram and Facebook without parental consent.

Concern about the impact of smartphones on the mental health of teenagers and young adults has been pushed up the political agenda across the globe in recent weeks. This is in no small part due to the work of American psychologists Jean Twenge and Jonathan Haidt who have called for an end to pussyfooting around the data which, they say, finally proves that using social media is a cause of, and not just correlated with, depression, anxiety and related behaviour including self-harm.

Last month Utah became the first state in the United States to ban anyone under 18 from using platforms such at TikTok, Instagram and Facebook without parental consent. Texas is considering a Bill that would go further by banning children entirely from social media.

For parents in Ireland and elsewhere there is an immediate challenge of what do in the midst of competing opinions and evolving evidence on the impact of using smartphones. It is good timing then that Katie Davis, a Seattle-based university associate professor who has spent the past 20 years researching the effects of technology on child development, has just published a new book giving practical advice.

One of the messages Twenge and Haidt have been keen to get across is that we put too much focus to “screen time”. Spending several hours a day on a screen is probably not good for you but what really matters, they say, is what you are doing on it. By stripping out the likes of binge-watching Netflix or recreational googling, and by rather focusing on just one type of screen use, they reach the stark conclusion: “Heavy social media users are two to three times more likely to be depressed than non-users.”


Davis agrees parents need to think beyond screen time; limiting it “will only get you so far”. A good starting point instead is to ask “Is this particular digital experience supporting my child’s development or not?” In Technology’s Child: Digital Media’s Role in the Ages and Stages of Growing Up, Davis comes up with a two-step framework for addressing the conundrum in everyday life: “Is this experience self-directed? And is it community supported?”

A self-directed experience is where the user has ultimate control over the technology rather than vica versa. Community support implies conversations taking place in families, schools and other settings about appropriate use of technology, as well as action at political and regulatory level.

But is it realistic to expect a teenager to be self-directed in their use of technology? Many educators would say that sort of critical thinking ability is slow to emerge in teens and young adults.

“This is where the community support comes in… because what I really want to move away from is putting the onus on individual teens and tweens, or the onus on their parents,” Davis replies.

Dr Katie Davis believes parents need to think beyond screen time; limiting it 'will only get you so far'.

Speaking to The Irish Times, she encourages people “to be self-reflective and say: am I really in control here, or am I being led here? And it’s not their fault if they feel like they are not in control because the platforms and the devices they run on are designed to co-opt their attention.

“The goal is self-direction and to get there it takes individuals but it also takes new designs from the technology companies and I think it’s pretty clear we can’t count on them to regulate themselves. So there does need to be some government intervention that needs to be thoughtful. I am uneasy about the Utah Bill and the proposed Texas legislation because I’m uneasy about the research evidence that the policymakers are drawing on.”

Is there an element of denial to such measures as children will one day grow up to be adults using social media?

“That’s part of it. The other part of it with the Utah Bill is that they are shifting everything on to the family so now it’s up to the parents to decide if their teen can go on social media. I just feel like the focus here is all wrong. It needs to be on the companies. I think something like the design codes in the UK [introduced last year to ensure platform features were age-appropriate]… they are not perfect by any means but I think putting the onus on the tech companies is more realistic because social media isn’t going away anytime soon.”

Among the design features she is focusing on in her research are “the infinite scroll, the algorithmically curated feed on your social media, and the metrics showing likes and comments, and notifications”. Davis says “those are the things I think we need to focus on because they shape what is possible on these platforms and what is not possible and the kind of culture that develops there.”

As for the strength of evidence currently against using social media, Davis says she has been following the work of Twenge and Haidt “for a long time” along with a vast amount of other research output. “I do agree we have accumulated a lot of research right now – a lot of it, granted, is correlational – but [it] does show there is some connection between mental health concerns among adolescents and their social media use. Having said that, I think it’s a much more complicated situation – and I think Haidt and Twenge also acknowledge this. It’s much more complicated than saying social media is causing mental health concerns because mental health concerns and disorders are multi-factorial and there are many causes.

“I am pretty convinced through my research, and talking to teens and following them across time, that social media can be a stressor for teens and it can often act as an amplifier for existing vulnerabilities, or existing stressors in their life. So, for instance, a teen who is vulnerable to body dissatisfaction issues when they go online and see very attractive images they are going to have a very different reaction, and that is probably going to contribute to their existing vulnerability in a way that a teen who doesn’t have that existing vulnerability wouldn’t experience.”

As for those worried about their kids’ use of technology right now, she advocates trying to be a “good enough” digital parent. “There is a ton of guilt parents feel in their own media use as well as feeling that they are not properly managing their children’s use – it’s like a double whammy of guilt.”

The “good enough” digital parent is “not so much settling for imperfection but actually deliberately embracing it… It’s just impossible to get it absolutely right because technology is still evolving, research is trying to keep pace and it’s always a few steps behind but that can be okay”. If you realise you are not giving your child attention because you are checking your Twitter feed, for example, “that can be a great teachable moment” as you can draw attention to your own vulnerability to distraction. “As your children get older you could even have conversations about why is it that I wanted to check my phone? These notifications don’t have to be there but that’s the default in the phone settings typically.

“As parents we feel we have ultimate responsibility… but also, come on, government let’s have some regulation as well.”

Technology’s Child by Katie Davis is published by MIT Press