Social media is causing anxiety amongst teenagers – and that effect is bigger for girls than it is for boys, a leading expert on child psychology has written. 

Dr. Leonard Sax, a psychologist and leading author on child psychology and learning, says “the bottom line is that the evidence is much stronger than I had previously realized: the more time teens spend on social media, the more likely they are to become anxious and/or depressed. And that effect is bigger for girls than it is for boys.”

Dr Sax cautions that parents should know the difference between screen time and social media engagement; and should not confuse the two. Much of the research which is referenced in various media stories on the effects of social media confuses this issue by  lumping all screen time (time spent watching TV, playing video games, doing homework online, researching online, etc) together, and therefore draws the wrong conclusions, he claims.

Parents frequently say they are vaguely aware that their children are spending time on an array of different social platforms, but they struggle to keep up, and don’t have any idea what effects it is having on their children; either long term or short term.

He advises parents to be aware of what their children are doing in the online world, and most importantly, to enforce strict rules limiting access.

He says that when a teenage girl is asked by her friend why she didn’t like her instagram post, it is a relief for the young girl to be able to say “my mum will only let me online for half an hour after my homework, but I’ll like it then”. These strictly enforced access rules are a huge stress relief, Dr Sax says.

Dr. Sax, a graduate of MIT and University of Pensylvania, is one of the world’s leading authors on child learning and development, and has conducted deep research on all the challenges on parenting; with a particular focus on parenting in the rapidly changing techological age.

After many years of consultation, practice, and research (working and consulting with more than 460 schools, from preschool to university), Dr. Sax is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on parenting and education. His books include Why Gender Matters, Boys Adrift, Girls on the Edge, and The Collapse of Parenting.

It is a familiar fact now that social media operates on a reward system of ‘likes’, which keep users hooked. We now understand that this effect is down to a neurochemical called dopamine, which gives the feeling of wellbeing we get similar to falling in love. “Likes” give us this chemical trigger in the brain, which internet users call a “dopamine hit”. The flip side of this thrill is the exposure that young people have to negative reaction which can have a catastrophic effect on impressionable young minds.

In reviewing his book Girls on the Edge for its second edition, Dr. Sax consulted with top researchers Jean Twenge and Jonathan Haidt, to help dig into the volumes of research being conducted in this area.

After reading through Twenge and Haidts findings, summarised in a 69 page report, he said  “the evidence is much stronger than I had previously realized: the more time teens spend on social media, the more likely they are to become anxious and/or depressed. And that effect is bigger for girls than it is for boys.”

Twenge is a Psychologist known for her research on depression and anxiety amongst young people. One of the surprising findings she has documented is the rise in anxiety and suicide attempts amongst young people in the past two decades. She has found that both these, as verified by hospital admissions have risen steeply in the past decade for both girls and boys, and that the higher rise was amongst boys.

Haidt is a moral psychologist, who along with Greg Lukianof, authored The Coddling of the American Mind, a 2018 book which looks at the causes of anxiety amongst young people (kids born after 1995, known as the igen generation) since the rise of the social media.

 


 

Lorcán Mac Mathúna