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Growing Pain: Social Media and Youth Mental Health Problems

Web Foundation · October 28, 2021

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The impact of social media on young people’s mental health has dominated headlines in recent weeks.

Leaked Facebook research revealed that Instagram has made body image issues worse for one in three girls surveyed. And in the company’s UK and US study, more than 40% of teenage Instagram users who said they felt “unattractive” said the feeling began while using the app.

Testifying in the US Senate, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen, the source of the leak, accused the company of knowingly making decisions that put profit above the safety of young users. 

“Facebook knows that its amplification algorithms, things like engagement based ranking on Instagram, can lead children from very innocuous topics like healthy recipes to anorexia-promoting content over a very short period of time.”

Facebook disputes Haugen’s characterisation, saying the research on the intersection between social media and well-being is relatively new and continually evolving. And that in many cases, teenagers said Instagram helped them when they were struggling.  

Here we look at some of the evidence on social media use and the mental health of young people — and consider solutions.  


Social media has contributed to my low feelings of self-worth and self-confidence. Seeing other people who seem to be having a perfect life, it’s really difficult because people are most of the time putting their best images on social media and not their worst.”

Jada Bromberg

Teenager in Virginia, United States | via WUSA9

Jada started using social media when she was 13. Her initial enjoyment soon became a compulsion and the content served to her by algorithms contributed to worsening depression, diagnosed when she was 13 years old. She now heads up a mental health awareness programme at her school where peers can get advice and share their experiences.


Evidence linking social media and mental health

Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to developing depression, and young people with mental health problems are at higher risk of poor mental health throughout their lives.

Half of mental illness begins by the age of 14 and two thirds by the mid-20s. It is the largest burden of a disease among young people and a major public health concern. Evidence in the US and in many other countries demonstrates this is a growing problem.

Put simply: the stakes are high. 

The evidence linking social media use and mental health problems for children was already mounting before Facebook’s internal research findings were exposed. 

Research published in The Lancet and a survey of children in 28 countries by the OECD identified poor sleep, online harassment, self-esteem and body image as key pathways from social media use to mental health problems. 

In England, a survey of half a million children — the world’s largest of its kind — put mental health as their number one concern, with many girls reporting their online lives created anxiety. The findings echo many other studies that find girls are more adversely affected than boys.


Facebook’s own research about Instagram contains quotes from kids saying ‘I feel bad when I use Instagram but I also feel like I can’t stop. I know the more time I spend on this the worse I feel’. They [kids] want the next click, the dopamine, the little hits all the time.

Frances Haugen

Former Facebook employee | via Business Insider


Are social platforms like cars?

Defending the platform, Instagram head Adam Mosseri likened social media to cars, suggesting that the benefits of social platforms outweigh the harms. 

We accept that there will be road accidents because of the wider social and economic benefits cars provide. However, we also have driving lessons, tests, and licenses, seat belts, roadworthiness requirements, emissions controls and age limits. Today, an 11 year-old girl can sign up to Instagram in a few minutes. 

So, as even the platforms recognise young people are being harmed, what can be done to limit these harms and protect young people’s health?


Considering the solutions

Here are some of the solutions that have been proposed:

💲 Financial incentives to protect children: Nathaniel Counts from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine suggests duplicating the model used by the US government with the healthcare industry. 

The government would create financial incentives for social media companies to protect and promote children’s mental health by withholding some of the companies’ revenue. Companies would then get the chance to earn this revenue back by demonstrating how they are positively affecting (or at least not harming) children. 

👍 Eliminating social comparison: Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, says the problem is not that children are using smartphones or the internet, but rather that platforms encourage them to expose themselves to ratings, comments, criticism and likes from strangers and friends — essentially quantifying their social value. Haidt suggests that children should not be allowed to post photos or get rated until they reach 16.

📄 Codes of practice: Others suggest replicating the UK’s Online Harms Bill, where an official watchdog issues codes of practice that companies need to adopt — including submitting risk assessments and algorithms for scrutiny by the regulator. 

Failure to declare research — like that leaked by Haugen — in a risk assessment would expose Facebook to substantial penalties. The watchdog will be able to issue fines of up to £18m or 10% of global turnover, whichever is higher, if companies fail to comply with the new rules.


Have your say

Given the scale and importance of the problem, there needs to be a sustained effort to generate solutions, with cooperation between governments, companies, and civil society experts.

Have you seen solutions that could help make social media safer for young people? Have you taken steps in your own life to avoid the harms of social media? 

Add them to our tweet thread or write to us and share your ideas. And retweet our solutions thread.


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