BY Lizzie O’Leary

APRIL 20, 2023

Lots of adults are worried about teenagers, social media, and mental health. Utah recently passed a law that will bar anyone under 18 from social media unless they have parental permission, and other states are enacting or discussing similar laws. But like a lot of internet debates, the conversation about the real risks and benefits of kids’ experiences online is often consumed by moral panic and sweeping generalizations, with little room for nuance.

On Sunday’s episode of What Next: TBD, I spoke with Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer at the American Psychological Association, about the real science behind social media and the social lives of teenagers. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Lizzie O’Leary: When did you realize that studying social media was key to understand how kids interact with each other?

Mitch Prinstein: For adolescents, one of the first areas of their brain developing is the part that makes them crave more peer connections. This is all a backdrop for understanding what happens when you add in social media to the mix.

We have been studying how kids get along with one another for so long—their popularity, their friendships, their bullying and peer victimization. And it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago when kids started asking us, “Wait a minute, you mean in person? You mean things that we’re saying to each other face-to-face?” Over time, social media went from a novel new way that kids were interacting with one another to the primary way. We realized if you’re not studying social media, you’re not studying kids’ peer relationships anymore.

What do we know about how kids and teens engage with social media?

How much time your kid is spending on a screen is probably not the most important variable. In fact, there’s little link at all between the amount of screen time and any psychological outcome. Some kids might be on there to read the news and listen to a podcast, talk with their friends about it, and that’s different than the same amount of time being spent on something that clearly would be more risky.

But these platforms are built for engagement. They want to keep you on them.

This is where the algorithmic function really comes in. We’ve never outsourced our social relationships to a computer before. We choose who we’re friends with, who we talk to, when we talk to them, in what order we talk to them or see what they have to say. That’s all machine learning now. For kids especially, we’re starting to see that those brilliant minds who have put these platforms together have found just the right way to keep kids on much longer than they even want to be on. It really sucks you in.

Have kids expressed that to you?

Yeah. Wow. In some of the research, folks have used the clinical dependence criteria that’s used for substance abuse and swapped out the words for “substance” with “social media.” About 50 percent of kids say that they spend more time on it than they want, they can’t quit even when they try, they’re lying or deceiving others or spending extraordinary efforts just to have ongoing access. It’s interfering with their roles, their relationships, their homework.

Then there is the content question. Even with parental controls, the nature of the internet and how people behave on it means teens can be exposed to just about anything.

Remember that there’s a lot of good that can come from social media, and there are some things that are risky too—but every kid’s going to respond differently. Some kids might have some preexisting vulnerabilities, maybe based on their identity or the groups that they identify with, maybe based on psychological risk factors like concern about their body shape or a tendency toward anxiety or depression already. When we think about the role of social media, we do really have to think about it as an equation. It’s who you were before you logged in and which kinds of content and features. We can’t say it’s all because of the kid or it’s all because of the platform.

What does the research say about how kids respond when they see racist, sexist, or radicalizing content?

The majority of kids are telling us that they are exposed to extreme discrimination or hate or online cyberbullying on several occasions as they use [social media]. And one of the things that happens to kids—well, it happens to adults, too—is that we engage in a process of overgeneralization. You see a post, it’s awful. You see that there are a few likes and comments. You read them; you have a choice. You could say, “Wow, there are five people that think that way.” Or you can say, “That’s like half the country that must feel that way. I can’t believe those people.”

We all do the latter more than we do the former. We overgeneralize what we see. And the reason why that’s so concerning for kids is because they don’t have as much otherworldly, out-of-their-community exposure. And as a result, what they see online has a remarkable impact in affecting their broad attitudes and their broader behavior.

These platforms were built initially for adult brains. Is there any sense of whether spending time on these platforms affects brain development?

What we know right now is that one of the first areas of the adolescent brains to develop is that area that makes us really attuned to social experiences with peers. Whenever you’re getting attention or someone nods or smiles or makes you feel powerful, it makes you feel good temporarily. And that’s because of a little dopamine oxytocin release in that area of the brain that develops a couple of years before you see puberty starting to occur based on observable features. Social media, it turns out, is activating that exact area because it quantifies how many people have looked at your post, liked your post, commented on your post, forwarded your post—and it’s a big dopamine oxytocin hit.

It might be hard to listen to this and not think, “Ugh, forget it, shut it all down.” Why shouldn’t we have that response?

There are a few things that are really important to remember. First of all, kids that are coming from communities where they feel isolated get tremendous benefit from the opportunity to connect with others who share a similar questioning, can share relevant health information, or even just social support. We don’t want to be taking social media away from everybody forever, because then we’re really taking away a very important psychological benefit. Secondly, a lot of kids talk about their online-only friends. This is, for adults, crazy to think about, but these are close, supportive, really important friendships. And some research is saying that those friendships are serving a function to buffer the effects of stress on major negative outcomes.We’re seeing that kids have more diverse friends, get more social support, and engage in more civic activism online than offline.

When Frances Haugen leaked some of the Facebook files, there was some really interesting internal data from Meta that basically showed that Instagram in particular seemed to be really hard for teen girls because they were comparing themselves against one another. Is there anything that allows us to look app by app, platform by platform?

Scientists, much like parents, are having a hard time keeping up with it all because it changes so rapidly. We have all moved into talking function-by-function. Does this have a public comment function? Does it have a “like” function? Does it have an algorithmic function? We can talk about things that are cutting across different platforms. By the time we have a paper out on a platform where we’ve done a study, that platform is a year old and not the thing in vogue anymore. It ends up being easier to look at some of these cross-cutting ways that it differs from our offline experiences and from other technological advances.

Many people think that phones are to blame for a spike in depression and suicidal ideation among teens and adolescents. How do you respond to that?

There is likely some contribution that social media has made to what we now are calling a youth mental health crisis. But those of us who have been in psychology for decades will readily tell you the youth mental health crisis started long before social media. It is not because of social media, certainly not exclusively. It has very much to do with stress, polarization, and long-standing concerns about inadequate mental health care in the U.S. I think we need to not look for a quick fix and think that we should just force the social media companies to change, and suddenly kids will all get better.

After World War II was the last time we made a serious commitment to mental health and built a national infrastructure for mental health—and that was built for adults, for veterans coming back from the war. When people say, “Why do we have a youth mental health crisis?” I say, “Well, look at all the science we have on what we would do now if we were building a youth mental health infrastructure. It would look very little like the one we have.” That’s more where we should be pointing the finger for how we got here. The problem is much bigger than just social media.

A recently passed Utah law requires anyone under 18 to get parental consent to join social media platforms. How should we approach laws like this?

It’s really important that we don’t have an all-or-nothing mindset when we think about this. Taking away the opportunity to gain social support, creating a complete lack of privacy, especially among kids who might need and benefit from an opportunity to have free exploration—that might end up doing more damage than good. Scientifically, we would probably advocate for something that’s more about creating a platform’s age-appropriateness instead. How can the tools and the notifications and the opportunities be different for an 8-year-old compared to an 80-year-old?

Similarly, what might be some competencies that we would want a kid to be able to demonstrate? Like the driver’s test of social media use before we give them the keys and just let them drive all over the internet free rein.

I know the APA is talking to lawmakers about these sorts of policies. What are they asking you and what are you telling them?

We’re talking with them about the idea that there could be ways to change some of the functionality on social media to be sensitive to adolescent brain development and psychological development. Take away that “like” button, take away the use of their data, take away some of the algorithmic work or monitor that content. A kid who expresses a totally normal concern about their body shape shouldn’t be pointed to a group that teaches them how to binge and fast and conceal that behavior from their parents. If we had developmental glasses on and looked at social media, we would quickly say, “Oh, there are a variety of things here that make sense for adults, but not for kids.” But I’m not sure the companies have modified it with that in mind.

Lizzie O’Leary is the host of What Next: TBD, Slate’s show about technology, power, and the future. Previously, she created and hosted Marketplace Weekend. She has reported for CNN, Bloomberg News, and the New York Times Magazine, among others. She is also a contributing writer at the Atlantic.

Mitch Prinstein is the John Van Seters Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  His research uses a developmental psychopathology framework to understand how adolescents’ interpersonal experiences, particularly among peers,  are associated with depression, self-injury, and health risk behaviors.  Mitch’s work examines:

1) Biomarkers of adolescents’ social stress-responses as predictors of self-Injurious thoughts and behaviors
2) Peer influence and adolescent health risk behaviors
3) Adolescents’ use of technology and development