GEMH's response to Jonathan Haidt's stance on social media and wellbeing


Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist, published an article last Feb in which he concludes that #socialmedia are in fact "a major cause of the mental illness epidemic in teen girls". GEMH Lab’s social media researcher-in-residence, Nastasia Griffioen (@Gryphire on Twitter) posted a thread with her thoughts about Haidt’s stance, which we unroll below! Do you agree with Nastasia, or not? Let us know what you think!

Social Media is a Major Cause of the Mental Illness Epidemic in Teen Girls by Jonathan Haidt

To start off, I really commend Haidt and his collaborators for the collective doc they've set up in which oodles of social media research have been collected and organised. I think taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture is definitely what we need. But Haidt's piece highlights our (i.e. psychologists') age-old obsession with the one finger that can point, when it's really the whole hand, arm, etc. we should take into account.

Prediction/manipulation of the world around us still wins over understanding /explaining. This becomes obvious when correlational evidence is brought forth as the one and only problem with social media research (which is not the case), and experimental studies are hailed as the solution. Again, I don't agree, see…

Toward Improved Methods in Social Media Research by Nastasia Griffioen, Marieke van Rooji, Anna Lichtwarck-Aschoff, and Isabela Granic

Sure, experimental studies scratch that 'antecedent-consequence' itch that is born out of the desire to control our lives (or our teens' lives). But a complex interwoven system like social media and teen mental health cannot be understood by taking it apart by its threads. Regardless of the type of study (experimental, longit., or correlational), we still face problems with:

  1. asking youth the right questions
  2. using the right tools to ask those questions, and
  3. understanding the contexts/system in which social media use effects take place.

We know that there is substantial individual variation in how, when, or why social media may influence teens' mental health (in negative or positive ways!), yet most social media and well-being work still consider individual variability as noise, rather than insight.

Haidt argues that rather than focusing on individual-level effects, we should also look at non-users of social media (if this logical sequence confuses you, no worries, me too). Regardless, his mention of non-users points to another important point.

I'm arguing here that social media effects and teen well-being are a complex dynamic system, operating on different coexisting scales. As such, the dynamics that are present at one scale may be very different and/or may lead to unexpected emergent properties at other scales. So it's true; it's not just about the teens that use social media, it's about the people around them too. In the same way that it's not just about this supposedly isolated, static 'substance' called social media. It's also about all contexts, motivations, etc. around it.

In the end, the teens themselves also do not benefit from this fragmented kaleidoscope of imperfect, piecemeal insights that we have now. What should apply to research, also should apply to our attitude towards youth and their hybrid realities.

So in sum: Teens' relationship to social media is complex and multi-faceted. Rather than trying to dissect and reduce it, we need a holistic approach that allows for the many idiosyncracies out there. That's where the good stuff's at.



Jeanine Jennings


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