Earlier this month, a U.K. court found Meta (the company that owns Facebook and Instagram) responsible for the suicide of a 14-year-old girl, Molly Rose Russell. The coroner who served on the case described her death as attributable to her social media use, which affected her mental health. In examining Molly’s Instagram use, it was found that she watched disturbing videos of suicide and appeared to fall down an algorithm-driven rabbit hole of content depicting self-harm and maladaptive strategies for coping with depression.
Molly’s story resonates with parents who find it difficult to monitor their children’s technology use and are not sure how concerned to be about the hours their teens spend online – connecting with friends, but also often connecting with strangers and content which may or may not be damaging. In fact, Molly’s parents had attended e-safety classes at her school and attempted to monitor her social-media use. Most parents aren’t worried about suicide, per se, but are worried about the unrealistic images and provocative content that bombard their children at all hours of the day and night.
According to Common Sense Media’s most recent report, 38% of tweens regularly use social media and by the time they are teenagers, they’re spending about an hour-and-a-half on social media each day (although far longer on screens in general). In most cases, social media use will not have deadly consequences, but this doesn’t mean that it won’t still be deleterious. One area of concern beyond general mental health is girls’ body image.
To address the possible link between tween and teens’ body image and social media use, we examined girls’ (average age of 12) Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube use and their body images. Our findings were recently published in the journal Body Image, and we believe they add some important nuance to the conversation about youths’ social media use. The first thing to note is that social media platforms require kids to be 13 to use them, but this doesn’t seem to deter most pre-teens; more than half of the girls we studied had accounts on at least one platform. Contrary to what we expected, girls’ use of social media (having accounts on these platforms) did not seem to make them more vulnerable to body dissatisfaction. In other words, letting your tween sign up for Instagram and scroll through her newsfeed is not necessarily a problem. Well, not entirely.
What we found is that what girls do on social media is predictive of their body dissatisfaction. Girls who attend to appearance-focused content on social media, such as watching beauty tutorials, following influencers for fitness tips, and following fashion, were more likely to self-objectify. In other words, they were more likely to monitor their own appearance constantly and feel shame about their body.
Of course, a teen’s negative feelings about her appearance are not necessarily going to lead to suicidal ideation. However, there may not be as much distance between these sets of beliefs as you’d expect. Body dissatisfaction is one of the strongest predictors of eating disorders. It’s been estimated that 9% of the U.S. population will be diagnosed with an eating disorder in their lifetime. Although eating disorders are not as common as some mental health disorders, such as depression, they are incredibly serious: Eating disorders carry the highest mortality rate of any mental health disorder aside from opioid use, and approximately 50% of eating disorder deaths are attributable to suicide.
The moral of our study, however, is not that all social media is nefarious, necessarily. Banning social media is likely an unwinnable battle but monitoring use that can negatively impact mental health and demanding more accountability from the platforms popular among youth may be essential. The U.S. Surgeon General has described the state of youth mental health as a national emergency and research across the pandemic reveals that a quarter of young people experience depressive symptoms, a fifth experience anxiety symptoms, and hospitalization rates for eating disorders have increased significantly. Young people do not need social media compounding these vulnerabilities.
Young people's social media worlds could include psychological support and information about mental health care, self-acceptance, and positive body image. This requires that youth curate their newsfeeds to see this content. In the U.K., even before Molly Rose Russell’s death, a law was being considered by Parliament that would require social media companies to adopt child safety protections. We suspect a lot of parents would worry less about their tweens' and teens’ social media use if more safety precautions were in place and if the content they were viewing was less likely to result in negative mental health consequences.