The Dangerous Experiment on Teen Girls

November 23, 2021

The preponderance of the evidence suggests that social media is causing real damage to adolescents.

Social media gets blamed for many of America’s ills, including the polarization of our politics and the erosion of truth itself. But proving that harms have occurred to all of society is hard.

Far easier to show is the damage to a specific class of people: adolescent girls, whose rates of depression, anxiety, and self-injury surged in the early 2010s, as social-media platforms proliferated and expanded.

Much more than for boys, adolescence typically heightens girls’ self-consciousness about their changing body and amplifies insecurities about where they fit in their social network. Social media—particularly Instagram, which displaces other forms of interaction among teens, puts the size of their friend group on public display, and subjects their physical appearance to the hard metrics of likes and comment counts—takes the worst parts of middle school and glossy women’s magazines and intensifies them.

One major question, though, is how much proof parents, regulators, and legislators need before intervening to protect vulnerable young people. If Americans do nothing until researchers can show beyond a reasonable doubt that Instagram and its owner, Facebook (which now calls itself Meta), are hurting teen girls, these platforms might never be held accountable and the harm could continue indefinitely. The preponderance of the evidence now available is disturbing enough to warrant action.

Facebook has dominated the social-media world for nearly a decade and a half. Its flagship product supplanted earlier platforms and quickly became ubiquitous in schools and American life more broadly. When it bought its emerging rival Instagram in 2012, Facebook didn’t take a healthy platform and turn it toxic.

Mark Zuckerberg’s company actually made few major changes in its first years of owning the photo-sharing app, whose users have always skewed younger and more female. The toxicity comes from the very nature of a platform that girls use to post photographs of themselves and await the public judgments of others.

From the September 2017 issue: Have smartphones destroyed a generation?

The available evidence suggests that Facebook’s products have probably harmed millions of girls. If public officials want to make that case, it could go like this:

1. Harm to teens is occurring on a massive scale.

For several years, Jean Twenge, the author of iGen, and I have been collecting the academic research on the relationship between teen mental health and social media. Something terrible has happened to Gen Z, the generation born after 1996.

Rates of teen depression and anxiety have gone up and down over time, but it is rare to find an “elbow” in these data sets––a substantial and sustained change occurring within just two or three years. Yet when we look at what happened to American teens in the early 2010s, we see many such turning points, usually sharper for girls. The data for adolescent depression are noteworthy:

Some have argued that these increases reflect nothing more than Gen Z’s increased willingness to disclose their mental-health problems.

But researchers have found corresponding increases in measurable behaviors such as suicide (for both sexes), and emergency-department admissions for self-harm (for girls only). From 2010 to 2014, rates of hospital admission for self-harm did not increase at all for women in their early 20s, or for boys or young men, but they doubled for girls ages 10 to 14.

Similar increases occurred at the same time for girls in Canada for mood disorders and for self-harm. Girls in the U.K. also experienced very large increases in anxiety, depression, and self-harm (with much smaller increases for boys).

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