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Yes, Social Media Really Is a Cause of the Epidemic of Teenage Mental Illness

๐ŸŒˆ Abstract

The article discusses the debate around the impact of social media on teenage mental health, with the author arguing that social media is a major cause of the epidemic of teenage mental illness, in contrast to the skeptical view held by some researchers.

๐Ÿ™‹ Q&A

[01] Two main problems with the skeptics' approach

1. Questions related to the content of the section?

  • What are the two main problems the author sees with the skeptics' approach, as exemplified in Odgers' review?
    1. Odgers is wrong to say the author has no evidence of causation between social media use and mental health issues in teens.
    1. Odgers' alternative explanation for the rise in teenage mental illness (social ills like racism, economic hardship, etc.) does not fit the available facts.

2. What evidence does the author provide to show that social media use is a cause, rather than just a correlate, of the current epidemic of adolescent mental illness?

  • The author cites:
    • Dozens of correlational and longitudinal studies showing a consistent relationship between heavy social media use and higher risk of mental illness/poor mental health in teens, especially girls.
    • 22 experimental studies, 16 of which found significant evidence of harm from social media use or benefits from reducing use.
    • Several quasi-experiments and natural experiments also finding evidence of harm to teen mental health, especially for girls, from the arrival of high-speed internet and social media.
  • The author argues this body of evidence is inconsistent with the null hypothesis that social media has no causal impact on teen mental health.

3. How does the author respond to Odgers' claim that the author has "no evidence" of causation?

  • The author states he has laid out the evidence for causality in previous essays, including experimental, longitudinal, and quasi-experimental studies.
  • He argues the skeptics are free to critique the studies he cites, but cannot claim he has "no evidence" of causation.

[02] Problems with Odgers' alternative explanation

1. What is Odgers' alternative explanation for the rise in teenage mental illness, and why does the author say it does not fit the available facts?

  • Odgers proposes the "real causes" are longstanding social ills like racism, sexism, economic hardship, etc., potentially exacerbated by the 2008 financial crisis.
  • The author argues this explanation:
    • Does not fit the timing of the mental health crisis, which began around 2012 even as the economy was improving.
    • Does not explain the similar trends seen in other countries like Canada, UK, Australia, and Nordic countries that lack many of those social problems.
    • Does not align with data showing the increases in mental illness were not larger for teens in low-income families, contrary to Odgers' prediction.

2. What policy implications does the author suggest follow from his "great rewiring of childhood" theory versus Odgers' alternative explanation?

  • If Odgers' theory is correct, the solution would be to first solve society's biggest social problems, which could take decades.
  • If the author's theory is correct, the author proposes four relatively low-cost, bipartisan reforms that could be implemented now:
    1. No smartphones before high school
    2. No social media before age 16
    3. Phone-free schools
    4. More independence, free play, and responsibility in the real world for kids

3. How does the author weigh the relative risks and costs of the two different policy approaches?

  • The author argues that if Odgers' theory is wrong, pursuing her policy approach could waste another decade or two, losing another generation to mental illness.
  • In contrast, the author's proposed reforms have little downside risk even if his theory is incorrect, as they would not irreversibly harm children.
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