Is social media driving the ‘mental illness epidemic’ in teenage girls?


Ironically it was whilst browsing Twitter one night, unable to sleep, that I came across this topic, through a blog by American psychologist Jonathan Haidt. It had entered my mind on and off for years but I was never able to find any conclusive answers. However, work by Haidt in collating years of research papers together in preparation for an upcoming book shows that we’re coming closer to having an answer. His conclusion? That “increased social media use leads to worse mental health outcomes, especially for teenagers and especially for teenage girls”.

This is far from an uncontroversial claim with other academics such as Jeff Hancock of Stanford University stating that “There’s been absolutely hundreds of [social-media and mental-health] studies, almost all showing pretty small effects.”  However, if Haidt is right, this should force us to reconsider the way that we’ve all accepted social media as part of our lives and the stranglehold which social media companies have over our free time and attention. Let’s take a look at how Haidt reaches his conclusion.

First, he asks us to look at the data surrounding what’s been described as a ‘teenage mental-health crisis’ taking place in America and beyond. Data from a range of sources indicates that young people in America and other Western countries are facing massive increases in mental health conditions. As Dereck Thompson writes in the Atlantic, citing data from a 2021 CDC study, “Almost every measure of mental health is getting worse, for every teenage demographic”, with the share of American high school students between 2009 and 2021 who report that they feel ‘persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness’ rising from 26 to 44 percent, which is the highest level ever recorded. This isn’t just happening in America, with a study from 2021 from the UK concluding that “the overall incidence has increased substantially in both boys and girls in between 2003 and 2018 for anxiety disorders, depression and self-harm”.

The connection that Haidt establishes between this worrying data and social media is that there is a strong link between when mental health conditions began to really increase and the widespread introduction of social media, which he places at 2012, when Facebook bought Instagram and its user base exploded. Now on its own this isn’t sufficient to establish a link between these poor mental health outcomes and social media use but it serves as a starting point for investigating whether there is a link.

Here is where Haidt’s work collating dozens of studies looking at the link between social media use and mental health outcomes comes in. Haidt analyses dozens of studies, which can be broadly split into two categories: a) those that are looking for an association between social media use and mental health, and b) those that are looking for a causal link between social media use and mental health. The result is that “a hundred correlational, longitudinal and experimental studies … taken as a whole shows clear evidence of causation”. Let’s go through some examples.

For the first type of study, Haidt concludes that “almost all of the studies we listed … showed an association between hours of social media use and bad mental health outcomes”. For example, a 2019 study in the Lancet by Zilanawala, Booker & Sacker which looked for an association between social media use and mental health outcomes found that the percentage of ‘clinically relevant depressive symptoms’ amongst UK teens increased dramatically based on their social media usage.

This is a striking correlation but importantly it can’t show which way the arrow of causation points, or whether there even is a causal link between the two. For that, we need studies which specifically look for this link by performing an experiment. Luckily that job has been done for us.

Haidt writes that “These experiments provide direct evidence that social media … is a cause, not just a correlate, of bad mental health”. An example of such an experiment was carried out by Hunt, Marx, Lipson & Young (2018) who looked at the effects of reducing social media use to ten minutes per day on the mental health of a random group of undergraduate students finding that “the limited use group showed significant reductions in loneliness and depression over three weeks compared to the control group”.

What this tells us is that there is not only a correlation between increased social media use, but also a causal link between the two with time spent on social media impacting a user’s mental health.

But does this mean we should all delete our Instagram accounts and stop scrolling Facebook whilst we’re supposed to be doing work in the Billy B? Probably yes for the second one but as for deleting social media altogether it’s still not clear for a few reasons.

Firstly, there is little evidence for a link between light social media usage and harm, with effects only really beginning to show an impact after more than an hour of usage per day. Second, a majority of the studies only looked at time spent on social media, rather than trying to examine which specific behaviours impact our mental health. Social media use includes a range of activities, from looking on Tindurr to see if you’ve finally been mentioned, to being hooked on the Instagram explore page asking yourself why everyone there seems to be having a better time than you. This means we need more data on which parts of social media use lead to harmful outcomes. Finally, the fact that so many people use social media produces network effects, whereby friendship groups and social activities are coordinated and take place online. Quitting these groups cold turkey without finding a replacement isn’t always going to be beneficial.

So, if you’re spending hours a day browsing social media, comparing yourself to others and feeling that you’re missing out, you would probably benefit from taking a break. And as one study by Brailovskaia, Swarlik, Grethe, Schilack & Margraf (2022) showed, reducing social media use by 30 minutes a day and increasing exercise by 30 minutes boosted mental health outcomes. So maybe our parents were right all along when they told us to stop staring at our phones and go outside.

Note that this is only a brief intro the topic, if you’re interested in more details and effects I’d highly recommend checking out Jonathan Haidt’s blog.

Image: Yuris Alhumaydy via Unsplash

3 thoughts on “Is social media driving the ‘mental illness epidemic’ in teenage girls?

  • Yes, and not just on teenage girls’ mental health but also teenage boys, and adults too. Adults may be better able to deal with it and teenage boys may not be as affected, but social media’s reach is expansive! The only thing we can do is be mindful of our personal safety ringing safety bells when necessary!

  • This blog post really hit home for me as a parent of a teenage girl. The discussion on the potential link between social media and the increasing rates of mental health issues among young girls is something we can’t afford to overlook.

    As the article rightly points out, the constant exposure to curated and often unrealistic representations on social media can significantly impact self-esteem and mental well-being. It’s heartbreaking to think about the pressures our teens face today.

    I appreciate the acknowledgment of the issue, and I’ve been actively searching for ways to support my daughter. Interestingly, I recently came across online therapy as a potential avenue for her to open up about her feelings in a safe and private space. I found a platform called Calmerry: that seems promising.

    It’s reassuring to know that there are resources available to help our teens navigate the challenges they encounter online. Let’s continue the conversation around mental health, and I hope more parents and teenagers consider exploring the benefits of online therapy as a proactive step towards a healthier digital experience for our youth.


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