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Can We Hold These Three Truths about Tech and Teens at the Same Time?

Our Kids’ Mental Health Depends On It

Mark Zuckerberg turned toward a group of grieving parents this week and issued a public apology. “I’m sorry for everything you’ve been through,” he said. “No one should go through what you and your families have suffered.” 

This latest admission at the Senate online child safety hearing was not the first time that Zuckerberg has tried weakly to make amends in the wake of some kind of incident or crisis. But for parents eager to see someone take responsibility for social media harms, it might have hit a little differently. The caregivers I talk with around the country are exhausted. They are tired of alarming headlines, tired of managing a complicated set of parental controls and confusing default settings, and tired of watching their teens struggle.

Aside from the emotional gravity of the apology itself though, what are we to make of the back-and-forth between members of Congress and the top tech executives in the world? What are we to make of the patchwork of actions at the state level, ranging from social media bans in some states to lawsuits in others?

This is an important moment. We have an opportunity to move forward with adolescent needs and development in mind. However, doing so requires that we step up to a challenge: We need to take steps guided by both attention to nuance and commitment to accountability. We need to create public solutions and recognize the strengths, needs and vulnerabilities of individual teens.

Let’s hold these three truths at the same time:

1. We don’t have to wait for scientific proof that social media is the primary driver of the youth mental health crisis to create a safer and healthier internet. 

At its best, research can hold up a mirror to the complexity of our challenges and shine a light on solutions. But waiting for scientific consensus that social media is the one and the only cause of the adolescent mental health crisis before taking any action isn’t necessary or even possible. 

The relationship between social media and mental health is very complicated. Yet tech companies can no longer ignore the specific needs and vulnerabilities of their youngest users. Design features that encourage compulsive behavior, capture private data, and allow unknown users to contact them are at odds with their developmental needs. We also have increasing evidence that platforms have prioritized profits over protection from documented harms. Adolescent time and attention are big business. A recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health estimated that the top five social media platforms generated nearly eleven billion dollars in advertising revenue from users under the age of eighteen in 2022.

Our kids’ health, safety, and development shouldn’t be an afterthought in the platforms where they spend so much of their lives. We have a track record of employing a “do no harm” approach in other industries including food safety, road safety, and consumer protection. We don’t need proof that all platforms are toxic to all teens before prioritizing engaging, safe, and age-appropriate design.

2. We do need to take into account the complexity of social media’s impacts on youth to craft good policy and support teens.

We can improve the internet without treating tech as an inherently toxic force. For any individual teen, mental health outcomes are shaped by their vulnerabilities and strengths, digital activities, platform design, and access to resources and support. One team of researchers recently noted that “one size fits all theories and explanations connecting social media engagement and adolescent wellbeing are bound to fail.”

Digging into complexity isn’t about engaging in some meaningless abstract debate. It should help us shape:

Better Policy.

For example, research indicates that the most vulnerable adolescents are more likely than their peers to experience harm on social media and also more likely to benefit from the support they find there. This is especially true for LGBTQ+ teens and other underrepresented groups. This is why outright bans are likely to backfire and why content neutral and design focused policies like the Minnesota Kids Code are a better fit. This prevents lawmakers from using youth as a political football in the cultural debate over what is deemed “appropriate” for children. This is not the time to misuse the compelling rally cry of “protecting kids” to rush into policies that might cut youth off from much-needed information, resources, and support.

Better Support For Young People.

If technology always and only harmed young people, then restrictive strategies alone might make more sense. Instead, the complexity of the data invites us to turn toward the teens in our lives. Open, curious, and non-judgemental questions help us better discern whether kids’ digital activities are helping or hurting. Young people also do better online when we balance boundaries with opportunities for communication, skill-building, and shared decision-making. Young people need us to do more than protect them from harm. They also need us to see their strengths and help them build skills for digital thriving.

3. We need collective solutions that address more than just social media if we care about adolescent mental health.

No matter which way you slice the data, the kids aren’t alright. But let’s not assume that solving this crisis is as simple as banning TikTok or setting age restrictions on social platforms. As researcher dana boyd notes, “the internet mirrors, magnifies, and makes more visible the good, bad, and the ugly of everyday life.”

Mental illness and mental health are not driven by any one factor alone. Let’s acknowledge and address the harms created by unchecked social media practices. But let’s not ignore the other known drivers of mental health outcomes. This includes things like poverty, racism, pressure, and inequitable access to mental healthcare. Let’s bring the same level of bipartisan support and community pressure to target the social determinants of mental health and invest in our mental healthcare system. 

This could be a turning point in the movement to create a better internet. But this moment demands that we move forward holding multiple truths about tech and teens at the same time. Our kids’ mental health and wellbeing depends on it.